Sunday, January 3, 2010

[Solo GPC] 485: Baptism By Fire

What can I say, the Great Pendragon Campaign does not fool around when it comes to kicking things off.

The first ten years or so of the GPC are rather heavily scripted. This is intentional, of course. The remainder of the campaign is primarily framework upon which the GM and his players can hang their own activities, but that first decade is pretty insistent on following a set path of (rather foundational) events. This is fine by me, as these activities are quite interesting and challenging--downright deadly at times, in fact!



Take for example the first year, 485. By definition the players will be running new knights, and what's the first thing expected of them? Mount up and follow Earl Roderick, Prince Madoc, and King Uther himself into battle against the Saxon foe! I'll tell you, it's a bloody and epic start, and it very nearly cost Sir Herringdale his life.



Art by John Ryan Byrd

The action picked up on a chill spring morning with squire Herringdale leaving Vagon Castle in the company of his lord, Sir Elad. Also along for the journey was a 15-year-old page named Bellerant. The destination was the walled city of Sarum; the purpose, an audience with the Earl of Salisbury. Word had come of Saxon landings in the east country and more reinforcements arriving to swell the ranks of King Aelle's troops in Sussex. King Uther had sent out a call to his vassals to assemble for war, and it seemed the time had come to answer that call.

The journey being made in a bit less than a day, the trio arrived at Sarum as the farmers and herders from the surrounding countryside were emptying out of the town market, making their way back to their hovels for the evening. Herringdale took in the wonders of the town--its great cathedral, the ancient eagle statue that once spoke to kings of the land and now stands silent in the center of the market square, and especially the great stone castle that looms over the surrounding town. At a time when most castles are still constructed of wood in the motte-and-bailey fashion, the stone keep of Sarum is truly a sight to behold.

Sir Elad, as Marshal of the County, was received by the Earl straight away; Herringdale was left in the bailey to tend to the horses and generally boss Bellerant around. Soon enough, however, he was invited into the hall, where he and his lord ate a cold supper by the warm hearth and then laid down for the night.

The next morning, before dawn, Herringdale rose early. Stepping outside to take the air, he was witness to the arrival of Prince Madoc ap Uther, the King's bastard son. A handsome if somewhat rakish man, the Prince rode by with his entourage, his green and gold banner fluttering behind him. Fortunately, Herringdale recalled the correct protocol and bowed to the Prince, then hailed him with a cheer as he rode by. As soon as he was able, Herringdale followed the Prince and his entourage back into the hall, and it was well that he did, for a surprise awaited him within.

Prince Madoc addressed the assembly of knights and nobles, confirming that a fresh army of Saxons had landed in the east at Caercolun, but that the plan to attack King Aelle's troops in Sussex still held firm, despite several lords failing to reply to the King's summons, the Duke of Cornwall most notable among them.

Due to the shortfall in manpower, the King authorized the knighting of all squires deemed fit for battle; naturally, Sir Elad had nominated Herringdale, and so our hero made his way to the front of the hall along with 4 or 5 others to receive their titles. The ceremony was necessarily short and to the point--no time for ceremonial distractions--with Earl Roderick taking the knights' oaths of loyalty and granting them their swords along with their noble titles. And so Sir Herringdale rose and took his place next to his old mentor.

Uther's army was assembling at Silchester, so there was little time to waste. Sir Elad dispatched a messenger to send for Herringdale's younger brother at Broughton Hall, who would become Elad's new squire ("I've had luck so far with the sons of Sir Hervis."), as well as Hervis's trusty charger, who survived his master and would now serve as Sir Herringdale's faithful warhorse. As for a squire for himself, Sir Herringdale somewhat reluctantly accepted Sir Elad's suggestion of taking on Bellerant ("No way! He's just a kid!").

Both brother and horse made the rendezvous at Silchester, and just in time. The next day the army was on the march, heading south into Sussex, seeking to engage Aelle in battle. They didn't have to march far. Just over the border, at a field bisected by a trickling brook called Mearcred Creek, Uther's army came upon Aelle's force, arrayed and ready for battle.

It was at this point that I eagerly broke out my new Book of Battle. My old Pendragon campaign spanned the Conquest period, so I ran lots of battles then and by the end of the campaign I was pretty fed up with the battle system presented in the core rules. It does the job, but it's somewhat confusing and just seems to lack that magic that possesses the rest of the system. I can happily report that the BoB fixes both problems.

(Interestingly, we can see another example here of the difference in my approach to gaming and Des's. Whereas I love stuff like the BoB, which uses a little flowchart that the player fills out as the battle goes along to help track intensity and round-by-round results, she finds such things a bit tiresome. It's like her approach to dice rolling that I mentioned in my last post; she really can't be bothered with the mechanical side of the game, as much as she recognizes its importance. We talked about this after the game, and she's much vexed by her disinterest, actually. Part of it seems to stem from not wanting to be the stereotype of the girl who hates numbers and math--even though she does indeed hate that sort of thing--and she wanted me to make sure I give a "shout out" here to all the girl gamers who like the crunch and the dice-slinging.)

The Book of Battle system builds upon and clarifies the system presented in the core rulebook. One of its great new features is the possibility for tactical maneuver on the field of battle; having said that, the first round is, of course, always a CHARGE!!! and so it was here. The armored lines of Uther's army crashed into the Saxon shield wall and Sir Herringdale's lance shattered upon impact with a unit of well-drilled Heorthgeneats armed with two-handed spears. The charge carried Herringdale's squadron deep into the Saxon lines, and it was there that another nifty feature of the BoB made itself known.

See, if the Unit Commander (Sir Elad in this case) rolls a Critical on his Battle roll at the start of a round, an Opportunity presents itself. The unit can pursue the opportunity or not, it's up to them, but the opportunity that came up here was too good to pass up: on the Opportunity Table I rolled a natural 20--the Army Commander (in this case King Aelle himself!) was in striking distance! No doubt the king felt that his men needed the inspiration of seeing their fearless leader fighting in the thick of battle. But Sir Herringdale was prepared to make him pay dearly for his overconfidence. Of course, this meant having to fight through the King's bodyguard, but how hard could that be, really?

The army lists presented in the Book of Battle (and its companion, the Book of Armies) give stats for leaders (including Aelle himself) as well as a bodyguard. But every army list also has a short list of "substitutions"--sort of extra-flavorful units the GM can drop in by fiat whenever it seems appropriate. This seemed an eminently appropriate situation, and my eye strayed to the substitution listing for Saxon Warrior Women. Yes, that would do nicely, thanks.

So Sir Herringdale, inflamed by his legendary Hatred of Saxons, charged at the front of Sir Elad's squadron, King Aelle firmly in his sight. Unfortunately, those warrior women proved far tougher than they first appeared. Well, they were the King's bodyguard, what would you expect?

Situations like this one allow for extended melee to take place (normally in Pendragon battles, a "battle round" is represented by a single combat roll representing a sort of montage of an hour's worth of fighting). This makes it far likelier the PCs will take some major damage much faster than otherwise, but if the stakes are high enough, as in this case, then it could definitely be worth the risk.

Unfortunately for Sir Herringdale, he was laid low by a heavy blow from a two-handed mattock wielded by the infamous Wulfhild, captain of the King's bodyguard. It was at this time that the young Bellerant proved his worth as a squire. Hoisting his unconscious master (down to 2 hit points!) onto the back of his charger, Bellerant led the horse away from the swirl of battle, charging through and scattering a unit of Saxon levy archers on his way back to friendly lines.

So ended Sir Herringdale's first battle, a battle which nearly ended his life. Having taken part in a heroic but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to take out King Aelle, Sir Herringdale was carted back to Sarum where he was allowed to convalesce in the Earl's hall for the several weeks it took him to get back to full health. In the meantime, he was tended to by the second handmaiden of Countess Ellen, the lovely Lady Gwiona (and tried to ignore the stories other knights told him about how Gwiona had lost no less than four suitors to death in battle before they had a chance to marry her). He also heard other knights around the hall referring to him as the "Knight of the Golden Hand," an epithet based on his distinctive coat of arms and brave deeds in battle.

As summer turned to autumn, Sir Herringdale took leave of the Earl and his court, bearing in hand a charter for his ancestral manor, now transferred to his name. Broughton Hall beckoned; there waited his mother and younger sister, as well as his older, illegitimate half-brother, a knight as well, who had been watching after them during Sir Herringdale's absence.

At this time we broke out the Book of the Manor, another of the semi-official, home published Pendragon supplements Greg Stafford has put out in the last few years. I'll tell you, these things are a bit pricey due to their low print runs, but they're well worth it to any serious Pendragon player. Hopefully one of these days White Wolf (who own the rights to Pendragon) will authorize these supplements to be sold for cheaper in PDF form.

At any rate, economics is another facet of Pendragon gaming I've long wanted to fully implement in my games, and the Book of the Manor strikes a nice balance of manageability and detail. To whit: with a few dice rolls, we learned that it was a particularly harsh winter that year, well befitting the gloomy atmosphere that had settled over Earl Roderick's court--the Battle of Mearcred Creek had ended in a standoff, and Duke Lucius had suffered a crushing defeat at Caercolun. However, Sir Herringdale's care for his commoners helped mitigate the potential disaster, and the harvest brought in ahead of the frosts proved more than sufficient for the winter. Matters improved even more with a surprise visit from the Earl as he made his way back from Uther's Christmas Court at Leicester: as a further token of thanks for his bravery at Mearcred Creek, the Earl presented Sir Herringdale with a small token of appreciation, a box containing silver coins equal to 1 librum. And Sir Herringdale's trusty goose, a miraculous creature indeed, continued to lay golden eggs sufficient to provide an additional librum of income (the goose was inherited by Herringdale with a roll on the Family Luck Table during character creation).

With so much surplus money in his treasury, Sir Herringdale decided to splurge a bit; the BotM has tons of awesome improvements and investments you can build for your manor, and Sir Herringdale chose to spend his money replacing the old thatched roof with tile and expanding the manor's bee hives into a full-fledged apiary, complete with beekeeper.

And so, now fully recovered from his wounds, Sir Herringdale waits anxiously to set out and do his duty as a loyal vassal knight. It will be interesting to see what 486 has in store...

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