Thursday, January 7, 2010

[Solo GPC] 486: Watery Tarts Distributin' Swords

Today Des and I played our second proper session of the Great Pendragon Campaign.

The year 486 found Sir Herringdale fully recovered from the wounds he suffered at the Battle of Mearcred Creek the previous year. In late April he set out for Sarum Castle to provide the mandatory two months' service to his lord, Earl Roderick of Salisbury. There had been word of Saxon atrocities in Caercolun to the east, particularly around Colchester, following Duke Lucius's defeat there the year before. A military expedition was a virtual certainty, and Sir Herringdale was looking forward to a chance for some payback against the hated invaders.



Instead, he found himself assigned to garrison duty! He was again placed under the command of Sir Elad, Marshall of Salisbury, along with three other prominent vassal knights, Sir Lycus, Sir Bar, and Sir Leo, whom Herringdale had fought alongside at Mearcred Creek.

(Those picture links are an example of a little "mini-game" we like to play with Pendragon; Des started it during the 2007 campaign. The idea is you "cast" various NPCs, matching them by appearance and, if at all possible, personality--either that of the actor themselves or a well-known character of theirs. It's turned out to be a great way to put a familiar face on such mythical figures as one finds in the Arthurian cycle, and it provides the GM with a handy touchstone for role-playing. We have several prominent Arthurian characters cast, and I'll be sharing those as they come up in the story. The three lads from Spinal Tap seemed like a good mix for the knightly companions of Herringdale, since their characters match the NPC personalities of fire, ice, and luke-warm water, as it were. They're the first bit of casting that we've come up with for this run-through, apart from the obvious choice of keeping Gabriel Byrne as Uther. Still haven't gotten a good handle on Merlin, unfortunately.)

At any rate, one of the glamorous duties of a vassal knight serving garrison duty is to ride patrol of his lord's lands. So, as Earl Roderick headed east to visit Uther's court at Windsor and deliver a contingent of knights and soldiers to serve in battle against the Saxons, Sir Elad took his former squire Sir Herringdale and the other three knights in his charge on a fortnight's patrol around the county.

The first week passed largely without incident. The most notable event was when, a couple days after May Day, the knights were flagged down by a filthy peasant, who wished to lodge a grievance against his neighbor, who, it seemed, had forcibly had his way with the complaintant's wife the night of the Maying festivals. The knights were led to the neighbor's cottage, where they found a defiant peasant sitting outside his door on a stool. His smug grin was soon wiped away as Sir Herringdale roughly trussed the rapist up and Sir Leo tied the rope to his saddle pommel. The peasant was made to walk the two days back to Sarum Castle, where Sir Herringdale literally booted him into the castle's donjon to await the Earl's judgment. Things probably would have taken an even uglier turn, but Sir Herringdale is noted for his mercy, after all (Merciful 16).

Returning to patrol duties, the group ventured up into the hills along Ambrosius's Dyke, the county border. A couple days later the group came across another peasant in need of aid. This one was a ragged old man who claimed to have once served as the Earl's own goatherd. He entreated the knights to assist him in retrieving a lost goat. This goat, a very special black billy goat, had run up into a section of steep hills that the old man couldn't manage. Sir Herringdale immediately volunteered. Sir Leo quickly jumped in to help too, and the "luke-warm" Sir Bar followed the majority. Sneering, Sir Lycus was ordered to go along by Sir Elad, despite the fact that the young knight felt chasing down goats was hardly a duty worthy of a knight.

The four men rode up into the hills; Sir Herringdale quickly spotted the goat staring down at them from higher ground. Noting that it was indeed a particularly large goat, Sir Herringdale sensed that perhaps he'd gotten himself into something far stranger than he might have first supposed.

The knights pressed on to the top of the hill. There they found the foundational ruins of an old manor house. Standing among the ruined stones was the billy goat, calmly chewing its cud and regarding them with an inscrutable gaze. The knights surged forward, and the goat turned and bounded down the far slope of the hill, disappearing into the woods at the base.

The woods were light and the knights pressed the pursuit on horseback. Suddenly, up ahead, the goat disappeared into a particularly thick berry patch. Almost immediately, there was the sound of the goat crying out in pain. As the knights rode up, their horses reared back in terror as a small giant came crashing out of the undergrowth, the goat held by its horns in one of the giant's knobbly hands.

The freakish giant regarded the knights with its three eyes and, apparently deciding that an even tastier dinner was presenting itself to him, tossed aside the goat while simultaneously uprooting a small tree with his other hand. Sir Herringdale (blowing his Prudent roll) gave a shout and lowered his lance, charging forward. Sir Lycus was right on his heels, followed soon after by the other two knights.

Sir Herringdale shattered his lance against the giant's side, burying the tip deep in its chest. The other lance charges all ran home as well, save the hapless Sir Leo, who caught the brunt of the giant's club swing. The strike lifted the valiant knight clear out of his saddle and sent him flying like a rag doll, crashing to the ground with only 2 hit points left!

Pendragon's combat system is legendarily bloody and brutal. I had made a careful note on how to integrate Des's secondary character in the event of Sir Herringdale snuffing it in this fight. I mean, even though it was a small giant, that sucker did a whopping 9D6 damage and wielded its club with a skill of 18! I increased odds of survival by having the giant split it attacks against multiple opponents and randomizing its targets. In the ensuing combat, Sir Bar also went down with a shattered shield arm. Finally, Sir Lycus put the giant down with a deft strike against its Achilles tendon (the giant had shattered its club the previous round when I rolled a Fumble, so both Lycus and Herringdale did an all-out attack as the giant was trying to uproot a fresh tree). Unconscious but not quite dead, Sir Herringdale put it out of its misery with a lance jab through the head.

It was a victory well-earned, and a bittersweet one at that. Des opined how much she hates killing giants and other such "dumb brute" monsters. She'll cut down Saxons and evil fae creatures til the cows come home, but there's just something about giants and their haplessness that makes her reluctant to take them down. I suppose it's similar to what Peter Jackson says on his Fellowship of the Ring commentary when he's musing about how sorry he feels for the cave troll in Moria. It just seems like a victim of circumstance and, as Jackson memorably put it, "even cave trolls have a mother who loves them."

Indeed.

At any rate, soon Sir Elad and the goatherd caught up with the brave young knights, and it was at this point that the goatherd, laughing and clapping, revealed himself for who he was. His goatskin rags seemed to melt away like mist, revealing the flowing robes of a druid beneath. His face, which had seemed sunburned and craggy, suddenly took on a more cultured appearance. Despite his age and attire, he seemed to walk with dignity and sprightliness. Sir Elad immediately recognized him: Merlin, the legendary magician! "I had heard he was abroad again," muttered Sir Lycus.

"You lot will do just fine," said Merlin. "Ah, but I see some of your number were felled. Easily fixed."

Tending first to the gravely-wounded Sir Leo, then to Sir Bar, Merlin passed his hands over their wounds while muttering softly to himself. Both knights, though still a bit disoriented and bruised, immediately felt better. Sir Bar's shattered arm could move again, and Sir Leo nearly leaped to his feet, so rejuvenated was he.

And so the party, following Merlin, headed into the forest. Perhaps still reflecting on his brush with such a brutal opponent, Sir Herringdale failed to note the change that was coming over the woods as they pressed deeper into the wilds; things were taking on a distinctly more otherworldly tone. Soon Merlin told the knights to dismount and leave their squires and horses behind. They did as they were told.

It wasn't much farther when, through the thickets, came a strange sight riding straight for the knights: a horse and rider, both slimy green in color, charging for them with a nimbleness that belied the tangled undergrowth and thickly-set trees. In each hand it wielded a sword, also slime green in color.

"Do your job, knights!" commanded Merlin. And so the knights once again drew their swords and charged into combat. As they did, the rider sprouted two new arms, each of which grabbed a branch off a tree to wield as a club. Unnerved but undeterred, the knights went in swinging. They were surprised to find their weapons drawing not blood but water. Clearly this was a creature of magic!

Compared to the fight against the giant, this fight was relatively easy; Sir Herringdale did take a nasty sword wound to the shoulder, but it was not grievous. Perhaps the ease of the combat was due to the fact that the creature, an evil fae called a nuckelavee, was trying to break through the line of knights and get at Merlin. Having prevented this, the knights, after dispatching the creature, turned to find Merlin had departed them, continuing through a gap in the trees towards a small lake. The knights picked their way down to the lake shore in time to see Merlin, standing on a small boat, receive a beautifully-crafted sword presented by a woman's arm rising out of the water. As his boat glided back to shore, Merlin quickly tucked the sword into his robes, nodded to the knights, and said, "Right. Let's get you back to your horses."


Owing to his injury, Sir Herringdale was allowed to return to Sarum Castle ahead of schedule. After a couple days of resting there, he welcomed the Earl and his retinue home from their visit to Windsor. Thus it fell to Sir Herringdale to give a full report of Sir Elad's patrol and any noteworthy events that took place along the way.

First Sir Herringdale told of the peasant they had put under arrest. "Very well," said the Earl. "We'll schedule a trial for him later this week. Anything else?"

Suffice to say that by the time Sir Herringdale had finished telling of the fight against the giant and the strange green rider, and of Merlin's inscrutable mission, he had not only the Earl but the whole assembled court hanging off his every word. The appellation "Giant Slayer" was quickly added to the Knight of the Yellow Hand's name.

Sir Herrringdale, of course, gave credit to his absent companions, and the Earl ordered a grand feast for the coming week, but in the meantime, a small feast was quickly arranged to fete Sir Herringdale on behalf of his companions.

At this point we got to break out one of our favorite old Pendragon tables, the Feast Table from Tales of Mystic Tournaments. A couple random charts generate a menu of distinctly medieval foods (eel pastries! meat tiles!) as well as "feast events." Sir Herringdale shared his trencher and wine cup with Lady Gwiona, the handmaiden who had tended his wounds the year before. Clearly impressed with his tale of valor, the Lady attempted to flirt with Herringdale, but the young knight proved too dense to get the signals. Next time, perhaps.

Once Sir Elad and company returned from patrol, a second, grander feast was held. As before, Sir Herringdale was afforded a place of honor at the table nearest the Earl's. This time, he sat next to Lady Adwen, perhaps the most eligible unmarried lady in the county. Beautiful and rich, Sir Herringdale was determined to make a good impression this time. Despite losing a drinking contest to Sir Lycus (who drew an admiring look from Adwen), Sir Herringdale did actually manage to flirt with her (barely). So now she'll at least remember his name the next time she sees him at court.

All this flirting led to a discussion of when Sir Herringdale intends to get married. Des wants it to be soon, but she's a bit torn between the two ladies Herringdale's interacted with so far. Lady Gwiona clearly has the hots for him, but she is only moderately well-off and not quite as lovely as Lady Adwen. Then again, she's handmaiden to the Earl's wife, Countess Ellen, and a marriage to her might prove politically advantageous. Des is also curious to see if perhaps a third candidate will make herself known in the coming year; she resolved to make up her mind to marry by the end of the following year one way or the other. As it was, Sir Herringdale nearly had to marry this year in order to raise some capital....

With his garrison duties at an end, Sir Herringdale returned to Broughton Hall and we moved into the Winter Phase. During the Economic phase, it transpired that Earl Roderick was imposing a tallage on his vassals to help pay ransoms for knights captured fighting in Colchester that year (just as last year featured a boon, this year's random roll came up bane, and a particularly nasty one at that). Desperately short of the necessary 6 libra, Sir Herringdale basically had two choices: he could squeeze his peasants, earning a check in Arbitrary and Cruel and increasing their Hate (Landlord) passion by 2, or he could take a chance on a random marriage, taking as his bride some 2nd or 3rd daughter of a vassal knight with a modest dowry and perhaps a manor to her name. After agonizing over it, Des went with the peasant squeeze. Dick move! Luckily for Herringdale, I rolled a "6" on the d6 libra that a peasant squeeze generates, so everything worked out for the time being.

And so the year ended off on a rather glum note for Sir Herringdale, despite his earlier triumphs. Similarly, the Earl (and King Uther, so it is said) are both rather preoccupied with the looming Saxon threat in the east; fighting in Caercolun was mostly limited to skirmishes, and although the Saxon advance was checked by Sir Brastias and his noble men, the Saxons are clearly building up their strength. Things left off with an invitation from the Earl sent to his vassal knights to accompany him to King Uther's Christmas court, which will be held at Sarum this year! Who know what opportunities will present themselves then?

As far as this year goes, I'm frankly a little surprised that Sir Herringdale made it through. That giant is brutal, especially since we're still at a "tech level" where the best armor knights can wear is 10-point "Norman chain"--it does the job, but not as well as the later stuff, obviously. I was fully prepared for the eventuality of Herringdale snuffing it, as I said earlier. I'm frankly surprised that no NPC knights were killed either! If I hadn't rolled that fumble for the giant (on a blow that was aimed at Herringdale no less!) things might well have turned out differently. Just goes to show that even (or especially) when you're doing a single-player game, those NPCs can be danged important!

I'm looking forward to next year; there should be a fair amount of courtley goings-on to contrast to the blood-n-guts battle and combat action we've had these past two years. I asked Des how she was feeling about Herringdale and the campaign and she said she's starting to get a feel for playing him and that she's really enjoying the sort of "change of pace" that the extended campaign structure and the Uther period is providing from our usual approach to Pendragon. This is her first time playing a "bog standard" knight, and she's enjoying the novelty of the experience. As I pointed out to her, with the massive story arc of the GPC, there's plenty of room to do the weird n' wacky characters in later years, especially once the Enchantment of Britain gets properly under way.

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