Thursday, January 14, 2010

[Solo GPC] 487: Not Quite Brokeback Castle

[Between this Great Pendragon Campaign series and my D&D recaps, I've been posting a lot of session summaries lately, haven't I? I know some folks don't care to read these things, but it's just the direction my blogging muse is leading me these days. Apologies to those who don't like to wade through accounts of other people's games.]

I was very much looking forward to running this year. Events laid out in the GPC that on paper were seemingly fairly straightforward had a certain promise of development through role-play. Of course, no plan survives contact with the players (or in this case, player), and this time was no exception...

When we last left off, Sir Herringdale had nursed his manor through a particularly difficult winter, squeezing his peasants for extra money to pay an impost from the Earl. So it was in a somewhat foul mood that he set out in the dead of winter to attend the Earl's Christmas Court. This is hardly a yearly tradition; ordinarily vassal knights are left to their own devices over the cold months, but this year was a special exception: King Uther was holding his own Christmas Court (one of just three "crown wearings" in the year) at none other than Sarum Castle! The Earl had summoned all his knights to be in attendance, and so Sir Herringdale, wrapped in a rough woolen cloak, his breath puffing out from rosy cheeks, dutifully set out, his squire in tow.

The journey from Broughton Hall to Sarum takes just about a day. It was getting on towards mid-afternoon (and thus the sun was beginning to sink low in the sky), when Sir Herringdale caught sight of a remarkable scene as he crested a low rise. A lady's carriage was running roughshod over the snow-covered fields, its team of two draft horses completely out of control, its curtains flying, the driver nowhere to be seen. The reason for the horses' panic was immediately apparent: the wagon was being pursued by a pack of ravening wolves! Even from a couple hundred yards off, Sir Herringdale could make out the screams of the woman inside.

Putting his spurs to his horse, he charged down the road. The wagon was running perpendicular to the lane and Herringdale ran a course to intercept it and the wolves at the point it was due to cross the road. Unfortunately, when the wagon hit the ditch that ran alongside the road, its harness came dislodged. The horses kept running, but the wagon, after nearly tipping over (I decided a roll of 15 or less would do it; I rolled a 16!) came to a rest. Some of the wolves kept on after the horses while the remainder of the pack circled the wagon, snarling and preparing to leap in.

Sir Herringdale arrived just in time. Jabbing his spear at the nearest wolf, he drew its blood and its attention. The wolf began snapping at his horse's legs. As this was Herringdale's riding horse, not his warhorse, I called for a Horsemanship roll to calm the beast. The dice did not feel like cooperating; Sir Herringdale went ass over elbows off the back of his horse, taking a hard fall on the frozen road.

(This actually brought the combat to a halt for a couple minutes of belly laughs; Des and I have been watching a lot of Blackadder lately, and the bit during the closing credits of Series 1--at the 3:45 mark in the linked video--where the horse dumps its rider and then just takes off running always manages to crack us up. So of course we immediately thought of that scene in this context and busted up laughing.)

Right, on with the combat. Having hit the ground, the wolf he had injured along with two comrades were on him in an instant. Fortunately for Herringdale, wolves aren't terribly effective against someone in mail armor, but surprisingly a couple of them did manage to bite hard enough to inflict a couple points of damage. Sir Herringdale gave much better than he got, however, and soon he was surrounded by three steaming wolf carcasses. His squire, meanwhile, had retrieved his horse and a quick glance confirmed that the rest of the wolves had run off when part of their pack came under attack. The draft horses were standing exhausted near a cluster of peasant cottages on the outskirts of the nearby fields.

At this point Sir Herringdale decided to see just who he had rescued ("She better not be 12 years old!" Des intoned warningly). Fortunately for Herringdale, she was not 12, but rather twice that age and quite lovely to boot (see picture at left for our casting choice). She introduced herself as Lady Elaine and thanked the knight for rescuing her after she had been cruelly abandoned by her escort. Good Sir Herringdale volunteered to escort the Lady the remainder of the way to Sarum and, with the help of some peasants rousted out from the warm cottages, got the wagon out of the ditch and the draft horses rounded up and re-hitched. Herringdale's squire rode the draft horse after hitching his own to the back of the wagon, and they were off.

Of course, with such a delay and it being the middle of winter, the party didn't arrive at Sarum until after dark. It was easily spotted--the King's presence meant that torches and bonfires blazed in every district and hall of the city on the hill, and Herringdale, after escorting Lady Elaine to the castle proper, was able to find a spot in the Vistor's Quarter to set up his tent and try to warm himself near a fire, chatting with a fellow young knight, Sir Jaradan.

The following day was Christmas, and all the knights were invited to the feast at the castle. Of course, Herringdale and Jaradan had to wait a couple hours as the cavalcade of Dukes, Barons, and Bannerets were admitted ahead of them. Finally, they were announced and entered the hall, squeezing in along the back wall. Nevertheless, Uther was easily visible, standing on a raised platform at the far end of the hall. He thanked everyone for coming, and announced that he would convene his lords and their vassals back here at Sarum four weeks after Pentecost. Apparently there were to be more campaigns that year.

Then began the ritual giving of gifts. In order of precedence, gifts were distributed by first the Earl, then Prince Madoc (who presented his father with the spoils of war against the Saxons from the preceding year), and finally from King Uther himself. Everyone got something from the King; Madoc received several manors along the Thames plus Windsor Castle, while Sir Herringdale received a handful of silver from the Saxon war booty. So it goes.

It was nearly time for the Christmas feast when Merlin made a sudden and unexpected appearance. (I mentioned our "casting" mini-game in my last GPC update, and the fact that we hadn't cast Merlin yet. After giving it a lot of thought [and reminding myself that Merlin isn't all that old during the Uther period], I went with a somewhat unusual but ultimately satisfactory choice (see pic at right). Of course, now Des imagines Merlin speaking with a Liverpool accent, but I don't think that's such a bad thing either, right? I imagine him complete with the spectacles, too. A little ode to T. H. White, I suppose.) At any rate, Merlin made a big showy entrance, was welcomed by Uther, then, after praising the King but telling him he still lacked something, presented him with Excalibur! Herringdale, of course, immediately recognized it from his adventure the year before. The rest of the assembled nobility, Uther not the least of them, stood in awe of the legendary sword as it seemed to radiate its own inner light.

"Now I'm prepared to visit some friends of mine," Uther said with a wry smile. His close advisor, Duke Ulfius, chuckled ruefully at this. "But first, a feast, for this is truly a time to give thanks and celebrate!"

Tables were brought out and grand feast was laid. As the assembled crowd was waiting around, Sir Herringdale caught sight of Merlin telling Earl Roderick to keep on eye on "that knight over there" (meaning Herringdale) and to "give him rein to help Britain." Score!

The feast got under way. Lady Elaine was seated a couple tables over from Sir Herringdale. Despite her repeated attempts to make eyes at him, he proved his usual dim self and failed to note her Flirtation. She eventually resorted to loudly praising his bravery in rescuing her, which Sir Herringdale took with due modesty. However, the part where she said she was "in danger of being ripped apart by wild wolves" brought a catty comment from the maiden Sir Herringdale was sharing his trencher with. "Would've served her right," mumbled the young damosel under her breath.

"I'm sorry, what was that?" said Sir Herringdale.

"Oh! I'm sorry, I didn't mean for you to hear that. I'm not one to gossip."

Sir Herringdale layed on the charm, however, and managed to get the girl to give up the info. Apparently, Lady Elaine, despite being one of the richest women in the county, was a social pariah. She had been married once before, but took a base-born commoner as a lover. The villein then proceeded to murder her husband, and was in turn hanged for killing a knight. For her part, Lady Elaine was left an outcast under the Earl's protection, considered little better than a slattern and a hussy by virtually every other woman in the county.

Strangely, this had little effect on Sir Herringdale's opinion. Of the three women he had thus far considered as marriageable material, Lady Elaine seemed to him to be the most promising. Perhaps it was his high Merciful trait, or perhaps it was the words "richest woman in the county" that helped counteract her scandalous past.

At any rate, as the feast was wrapping up, King Uther, a little into his cups at this point, called upon Sir Herringdale to share the tale of the Adventure of Sword Lake (I rolled "Knight is called upon to Orate" on the Feast Events Table). Des decided this was an important enough moment to invoke a Passion, especially since her Orate skill was pretty low. She decided Honor would be appropriate, I agreed, and she rolled. Fail. Oh dear. With her Orate reduced by a further 5 for feeling Discouraged, she needed to roll a "1"--but the dice were not on her side and the requisite miracle did not manifest. Afflicted now with profound Melancholy for telling a rambling, unfocused tale before the King and assembled nobility, Herringdale slunk off to wander the castle grounds, his soul trapped at the bottom of a depression well. At one point, his original admirer, Lady Gwiona, caught sight of him and gave him a sympathetic look, but he was having none of it. That night was cold and dreary, a true low point for our young hero.

Dawn brought the prospect of heading home, but first Herringdale was summoned before the Earl. Assuming he was about to get chewed out for bungling a royal command performance, he was instead taken into the Earl's confidence. Also in attendance were Sirs Bar, Leo, and Lycus, Herringdale's comrades in arms during the Adventure of Sword Lake. Roderick informed his men that, in light of their accomplishments the previous year and following the advice of certain people, he was prepared to offer his vassals a choice in how they'd like to spend their 60 days of service in the summer. Prince Madoc was organizing a series of naval raids on Saxon ports along the eastern shore of Britain, while King Uther, along with Earl Roderick and several other movers and shakers, would be heading north to visit the Duke of Lindsey on a diplomatic mission. Herringdale's three companions chose to go raiding with Madoc and cover themselves with battle glory. Herringdale meanwhile (and as I had hoped) opted for the Lindsey trip.

And so time was fast-forwarded to four weeks after Pentecost. Sir Herringdale was back at Sarum and preparing to follow his Earl as part of his retinue. Along for the trip was Sir Jaradan, whom Herringdale had exchanged some friendly words at Christmas. In addition to Earl Roderick and King Uther, Merlin was coming along, plus Duke Ulfius and a whole passel of other noblemen. It was quite a procession that made its way north from Sarum, and over three weeks they made their way up the old Roman road to the city of Lincoln, the seat of Duke Lindsey.

During that time, Herringdale learned of the reason for the trip. It seemed that the Duke, despite being a vassal of Uther, had been somewhat reluctant in fulfilling his feudal obligations. As a member of the Supreme Collegium, the Duke had it in his power to help raise King Uther to the status of High King of Britain. Clearly this was a nobleman who needed to be firmly in Uther's camp.

(Along the way, Sir Jaradan pointed out Kenilworth Castle in Wuerensis. "They say a lady-knight is lord of that castle. Can you imagine such a thing? They call her Sir Not-a-Lady!" Sir Herringdale shook his head in disbelief as he surveyed the modest motte-and-bailey structure.)

Eventually the procession arrived in Lincoln, an old Roman city that still showed its heritage in the form of perfectly square city walls and a regular street layout within. Sir Herringdale, always an admirer of the civilizing influence of the Romans, drank in the architecture and waxed philosophical about the passing of a great empire.

After their long journey, and having sent riders ahead to announce their approach, the King and his entourage were somewhat put out to find that Duke Lindsey was not there to welcome them. Instead, they were met by a knight wielding a ceremonial mace. He announced himself as the Duke's chamberlain and apologized for the Duke's absence, promising he would return shortly. "In the meantime, please enjoy the hospitality of our humble castle and court!"

Once inside the old Roman fort, Herringdale was present for formal introductions. It was at this point that I played a card I'd been planning on, not quite sure how it would pan out. Cross-gender role-playing is an interesting thing. I know there are people out there who simply aren't interested in it, or are actively opposed to it. Me, I've never had a problem with it, although I usually play male characters these days (when I get a chance to play rather than run a game). But here was a case of not only cross-gender RP-ing, but having to actively pursue a bunch of different ladies with romantic intentions. And since Des is a girl after all, (and being the open-minded fellow that I am) I figured she might like a chance to go after some man meat as a change of pace. So I came up with a nice little NPC, the aforementioned chamberlain, named Sir Jordans who just happens to look eerily like a scruffy Ewen McGregor (see picture at left). It wasn't something I was going to force, just sort of float as a possibility, see what Des thought. Of course, by the laws of GM-PC dynamics, Des had taken an immediate dislike to Sir Jordans, a suspicion that was lessened only slightly by my description of him.

To fill time until the Duke's return, Sir Jordans organized a hawking expedition. Sir Herringdale and the chamberlain then had their first personal interaction in the mews, where Sir Jordans made sure his guest was given the best bird from his own personal collection. This of course only made Sir Herringdale even more suspicious!

The hawking expedition got under way, with a great procession of nobles fanning out over the countryside on a beautiful summer day to bag some pheasant and grouse. Around mid-afternoon, Sir Herringdale had his chance and, despite a low Falconry skill, managed to roll a success, launching Hercules the Hawk on his deadly mission. Hercules brought down a grouse over a stretch of woodland, and Herringdale (and a cocker companion) rode off to retrieve the two birds.

In the woods, Sir Herringdale once again ran across Sir Jordans, who was heading for a nearby lake to take a dip and refresh himself. Inviting Herringdale along, the two knights made for the cool clear waters during the height of the hot summer afternoon. Swimming about for a bit, Herringdale began to grow uneasy. Just what did this Jordans fellow want, anyway? Des made a Suspicious roll and passed it--Herringdale was outta there!

Making an excuse for himself, he gathered up his clothes, dressed quickly, and, now soaking wet, rode off into the woods. Now, if there's one thing Herringdale's good at, it's Hunting, and it was precisely a Hunting roll that he was required to make to find his way back through the woods. Even with a hefty penalty, he made his roll! I figured this deserved a bit of a reward, so I noted that as Herringdale was riding back through the woods he heard something strange: a sound of ghostly hunting hounds! Growing frightened (and failing a Valorous roll), Herringdale turned his horse back the direction he'd come.

Arriving back at the pond, he found Sir Jordans, now fully dressed, crouching behind a rock, observing something farther down the shore. At Herringdale's approach, Jordans motioned for him to be quiet and come take a look. Herringdale stole forward as quietly as he could and saw a fabulous creature drinking at the shore of the lake. Failing a Faerie Lore roll, Herringdale could not imagine what kind of beast would have the head of a snake, the body of a leopard, the hindquarters of a deer, and the tail of a lion, but Des knew: it was none other than the Questing Beast! (See illustration at the top of this post.)

As if on cue, the sound of an armored rider could be heard coming up behind the knights. At the noise, the Questing Beast ceased its repast and slipped away into the woods, the sound of hunting hounds resuming as it moved, coming from its very belly in fact. The rider was soon within hailing distance of the knights; he boomed out a greeting to them, then asked if they'd seen Glatisant, the Questing Beast. They made "he went thattaway" motions, and King Pellinore thanked them, then rode on.

(I mentioned we've been watching a lot of Blackadder; who else could I cast as Pellinore but Brian Blessed? I mean, come on!)

And so, not quite knowing what to think, Herringdale and Jordans made their way back to Lincoln. That night a great feast of grouse and pheasant was laid out. And a couple days later, Duke Lindsey returned. Another feast was held, during which time Sir Herringdale got a chance to observe the Duke and King together. Clearly, the Duke was suspicious of Uther's intentions, but he remained stiffly polite throughout the proceedings. It was finally time for Uther to play the "Excalibur card." As part of his elaborate plan to blow the Duke's mind, Uther called upon Herringdale once again to relate his tale of helping Merlin recover the sword (this, unlike the previous time, was a scripted event). Deciding not to risk a Passion roll this time, Des tried for a straight Orate roll...and once again failed. Clearly Herringdale is not cut out for a life of public speaking.

Nevertheless, it wasn't a fumble; the point was gotten across. Uther used Herringdale's tale as a lead-in to allow Merlin to unveil Excalibur yet again. And it had the intended effect. The Duke and his men were stunned and immediately pacified. Mission accomplished! But as with all things Pendragon, with each layer peeled away, more opportunities for adventure presented themselves...

In the days following the feast, Herringdale began to make plans to return home when he was approached by Earl Roderick. The King, it seemed, was looking for knights to send as messengers to the Northern Kings outside his domain, inviting them to come see him at Lincoln, obviously hoping to wow them with Excalibur in the same manner as Duke Lindsey. Roderick offered to Herringdale the chance to serve as envoy to the powerful kingdom of Malahaut. Keeping in mind some information he'd heard about the King of Malahaut turning away a Roman Praetor named Syagrius who was looking for military assistance, Herringdale respectfully declined, citing his desire to get back to his manor and set about plans for marriage.

(This was a wise choice. Sir Jaradan was sent on the mission instead and met with utter failure, being stymied at every turn for the two weeks he spent in Eburacum, capital of Malahaut.)

"Plans? What plans? I've not given you permission to marry! Is it the Lady Gwiona? I hear she quite fancies you..."

"She is indeed a fine lady, my lord, but I had more of an eye for the Lady Adwen, perhaps."

"Ah yes," mused the Earl. "She is indeed perhaps the greatest prize plum in my county. I'm afraid, my good sir, that she's perhaps a bit out of your reach at the moment."

(I had noted minimum acceptable Glory levels for Herringdale to achieve before he could marry certain women; he wasn't even close to Adwen's minimum.)

"Well then, there's always the Lady Elaine," offered Herringdale.

"Her? Well, certainly, yes. She is a wealthy woman, after all."

And so it was arranged. The Earl gave his permission and Herringdale returned to Broughton Hall to prepare for an October wedding.

Ah, but could it really be all that easy? I think not! The wedding went off without a hitch, but right after the priest had declared "man and wife" the tolling of the village bell could be heard, and that signaled trouble. Soon, an elder from the village came riding up on a mule, looking slightly panicked.

"Saxon raiders have been spotted on the edge of our lands, my lord!"

Sir Herringdale was all business, immediately ditching his new bride to suit up in armor, then taking his squire and two (non-knight) cousins to scout things out. They came upon the Saxons, nearly two-dozen strong, raiding sheep paddocks and making their way across pastureland at the edge of Herringdale's domain. What was worse, they were being led by that she-bitch Wulfhilda, the Saxon warrior woman who had nearly stove Herringdale's head in at the Battle of Mearcred Creek!

Dispatching one cousin to take word to the Earl and another to take word back to the wedding party to fetch the five other knights in attendance (all uncles and cousins of Herringdale), he began shadowing the raiders, seeing where they were headed. Soon his kinfolk caught up to him and they formed a battle plan.

As the Saxons, who were clearly intent on penetrating deeper into Herringdale's lands, paused to refresh themselves at a brook, Herringdale lined up with his men and launched a surprise charge out of the nearby woods. Caught in the flank, the Saxons didn't stand a chance. Particularly after Herringdale made his Hate (Saxons) roll and saw his Spear Expertise skill (a Cymric cultural skill which covers both Lance and Spear skills--a nice new rule introduced in the Book of Knights and Ladies) boosted to 26! He did 42 points of damage in the charge, easily taking out his target. (Since his lance didn't shatter, I ruled that he had skewered the Saxon's head, popping it clean off the shoulders.)

Pausing only to shake his grisly trophy off the tip of his spear, Herringdale charged on, stabbing down another Saxon raider. Then he spotted her: Wulfhilda. It was payback time.

The Saxon battle angel was positioned alongside the brook, standing ready with her two-handed maul. Herringdale charged...and despite all his bonuses, failed to get a crit. The regular success meant Wulfhilda took a bit of damage, but not enough to take her out. In return, she swung her maul with a force sufficient to knock Herringdale clean out of his saddle. He took a hard fall (6 additional points of damage on top of 15 from the maul!), landing on his neck in the brook. But Wulfhilda had no time to lay the final death blow. I rolled on the Follower's Fate table and found that Herringdale's kin had been pressing the Saxons severely enough to cause them to break and flee. Wulfhilda ran off with them, choosing to fight another day rather than face down five angry knights.

Fished out of the brook before he had a chance to drown, Herringdale (one point away from Unconciousness) was propped back up in his saddle and conveyed home to his new bride. The first benefit of his marriage made itself immediately apparent as Lady Elaine lovingly tended to his wounds. The second benefit made itself clear during the Winter Phase, when I rolled on the Childbirth Table: twins! A boy and a girl, just like Herringdale and his sister. Eerie. Des is holding off on naming them til they manage to survive a couple more winters. Best not to get too attached otherwise. And speaking of deaths, Sir Herringdale's father's charger passed away! NooooOOOooooOOO! Those suckers are expensive too. So for now Herringdale is forced to ride his rouncey into battle. Ah well, most knights in the Uther period use rounceys as warhorses, so I guess it's not too humiliating.

All in all this was the most action-packed year yet and full of great role-playing and character interaction. I was really pleasantly surprised by many of Des's decisions: going for Lady Elaine, and spurning Sir Jordans' somewhat aggressive advances. (I've been having fun with Dark Ages sexual mores too; I always made sure to describe eligible women not just in terms of their face and comportment, but in terms of their hips and bustline, something a knight with an eye towards fathering many heirs would be looking for. And my description of Jordans' aggressive, straightforward advances truly caught Des off guard.) Sir Jordans will, of course, be featuring in some future storylines, so it remains to be seen if love is still in the cards for these two firecrackers...

...but for now Sir Herringdale has his wife and his children and a nice cozy manor, plus the income of Elaine's four other manors. Time to start living large?
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