Monday, February 8, 2010

[Solo GPC] 491: Siege Terrible

Moving preparations continue apace, but Des and I took a little time out yesterday to get back into some Pendragon. The year 491 would find the now-Notable Sir Herringdale moving in ever higher circles of power, just in time to see the beginning of the end. Timing is everything, as they say.

As I had done before we started playing 490, I had left off last session by telling Des she'd have a choice to mull over for the following year. This time it came down to two options, between being in a battle and winning Glory, or skipping the battle and possibly witnessing an important event that won her none. (This little bit of foreshadowing was actually suggested directly by the GPC, and I rather like it. I don't mind dropping a couple future details in the name of player anticipation.)

When we left off, she had been leaning towards the latter choice, but today perhaps she was feeling a bit more fatalistic, because she left the decision up to a dice roll instead. The dice came up in favor of battle, and in hindsight I couldn't be more pleased that's how things ended up. But let's not get ahead of ourselves.

So as Herringdale was well aware (having witnessed a couple key scenes in the unfolding drama personally), King Uther was none too happy with his erstwhile vassal, Duke Gorlas of Cornwall. Herringdale had correctly deduced that Uther was lusting after the Duchess Igraine, and had seen the Ducal couple fleeing Uther's London court in the middle of a blizzard as winter began to set in at the end of 490. So it came as little surprise when he was summoned to Sarum along with the other knights of the land and informed by Earl Roderick that they were marching to war in the west.

Nevertheless, Herringdale felt obliged to speak up; there was word of more Saxons landing in Sussex and swelling the ranks of King Aelle's army, and Herringdale was not alone in feeling that the army should be marching south, not west. Earl Roderick, although too courteous to agree directly, clearly felt so as well. He announced that he'd be fulfilling his oath to Uther only in the strictest terms by bringing along just his knights and leaving all his foot levy at home to garrison Salisbury's castles and manors against possible Saxon invasion. This satisfied Herringdale and the other malcontents somewhat, and they began making plans to ride to war, as King Uther's army was expected to arrive sometime in the next fortnight.

As it transpired, the King's army showed up at Sarum a full week earlier than expected. Uther was clearly marching his army hard, so determined was he to get to grips with Cornwall. Hurriedly joining his columns, Sir Herringdale, now riding under the banner of Earl Roderick himself, chatted with knights from the east, who informed him (after a successful Intrigue roll) that even the king's son, Prince Madoc, had quarreled about the decision to go after Gorlas with such single-minded abandon.

Now, this was when things took a delightful turn for me as a GM. I had been wanting to involve Madoc (pictured at left) in the campaign since Year One, when Herringdale, then still a squire, witnessed the Prince arriving at Sarum Castle. I liked the character: a bastard son of the king, yet heir-apparent, he is rough and tumble, an old-fashioned brawler of a knight mostly interested in campaigning and glory. Yet, more or less unintentionally, Des kept making choices that kept her at a distance from the Prince. When he set off to the Continent, she chose to remain at home. When he launched raids on the northern Saxon kingdoms, she went with the King's Progress instead. Stuff like that. She just didn't seem terribly interested in the Prince or what he was up to. No big deal. Sometimes as a GM, you dangle a favorite NPC in front of the players and couldn't be less interested. So it goes, you move on. So imagine my surprise when, during the course of riding with the army, Herringdale all of a sudden got all interested in the Prince. This was especially all the sweeter since I knew what was going to happen to Madoc this year, and that, because of Des's dice roll at the start of the session, Herringdale would be there to witness it. These are the moments I savor as GM.

At any rate, as a member of the Earl's guard, Herringdale was privileged to some high-level conversations between the Prince and the Earl (Uther still largely keeping to himself, speaking only with his advisors Duke Ulfius and Sir Brastias), and managed to have a couple interchanges with him as the army entered Cornwall. Des was intrigued by the possibility of starting a new relationship; although still saddened by the passing of Sir Jordans, she feels that Herringdale needs to move on and start "getting some" again. If only...

As the army moved through Cornwall, scouts began to bring back reports. It seemed that Gorlas had holed his forces up inside two impregnable castles: he and the bulk of his army were at Castle Terrabil, which guarded a key crossroads; the other fortress lay due north of Terrabil, the unassailable Tintagel Castle (pictured right), where Igraine and the Duke's treasure reserves had been secured. Uther kept two-thirds of his men (including Herringdale) at Terrabil and sent the remainder to set up a containing force at Tintagel.

The siege at Terrabil proved to be little more than a containing action as well. Situated on a rocky promontory overlooking a small river, the shell keep was almost as unassailable as Tintagel. Worse, most of Gorlas's garrison sheltered behind its walls; an assualt would be suicidal, yet to send troops elsewhere invited a sortie. Uther had arrived in Cornwall with fewer men than he might have otherwise--the speed of his march had not allowed for vassals marching from the north to join up in time, and the army was obliged to wait for these trailing elements to arrive prior to attempting an assault. Events, however, would transpire to move things along before that had a chance of happening.

After a month of siege and no action, Herringdale was growing restless. One day, while walking the camp, he saw Merlin slip out of Uther's tent, mount a horse, and ride off. "What could that old enchanter be up to now?" Herringdale wondered to himself.

That evening, as he sat chatting and relaxing with his fellow Salisbury knights, the shout of a sentry disturbed the quiet air. Then a trumpet blast, cut short in mid-breath. Then the sound of more shouts, and of steel clashing on steel. The camp was under attack by the Duke's garrison! And with Herringdale and his companions out of their armor. I gave Des the choice to spend a battle round armoring up or prepping her horse. She chose to armor up first, even as several brash young knights grabbed their swords and ran off to fight with neither horse nor armor. Then, as camp followers and wounded started pouring back through their area of camp, she started prepping her horse the following round--but it was too late! The Cornish knights were upon them! Herringdale charged into battle anyway, fighting well despite being caught flat-footed.

Presently, the sound of the Prince's voice could be heard: "The banner! Rally to the banner!" Herringdale could see the Prince's standard waving in the night air, now illuminated by multiple burning tents and sheds. He began fighting his way towards the rally point, eventually catching sight of the Prince who, on foot, was crossing swords with Duke Gorlas himself, who was raining down blows from horseback, shouting at the Prince to stand aside. "Send me to your father!" the Duke roared, his passionate hatred of Uther inflamed.

Sir Herringdale rushed towards the Prince, but was delayed by the general melee. Just as he was drawing close enough to come to Madoc's aid, Gorlas disarmed his foe, then brought his sword down with such force that he chopped through the Prince's neck and chest and buried the blade deep into his torso. Madoc simply stood, dumbfounded and glaring at Gorlas, as blood began trickling out of his mouth, even as the Duke tugged at his stuck blade, still shouting for the King.

Sir Herringdale was faced with a dilemma. Gorlas was clearly not to be messed with, but he had just killed the Prince and looked to possibly be in a vulnerable position. Invoking Herringdale's Honor passion to avenge the Prince's death, Des decided to attack. She rolled a Critical on her  attack, then enough damage to kill Gorlas one-and-a-half times over. Herringdale rode in and chopped the Duke's sword arm off at the shoulder. Prince Madoc, sword still stuck in him, the Duke's severed arm still holding the sword, fell backwards; the one-armed Duke fell the other way and was dead before he hit the ground.

Gorlas's bodyguard somewhat belatedly rallied around their leader; a couple went after Herringdale, but still impassioned he was able to drive them off easily. Soon word of the Duke's death spread and the Cornishmen broke and fled back towards the castle. Riding up to Herringdale's side, Duke Ulfius and a band of surviving knights signaled pursuit and Herringdale, somewhat reluctantly, joined them. The wanton destruction, the death of Prince Madoc, and of Duke Gorlas at his own hands, and all this over a King's lust--it left him with a bad taste in his mouth. Nevertheless, he joined the pursuit.

As he made his way up towards the castle, however, he ran up against several Cornish knights who were forming a rearguard. Clashing swords with one, Herringdale was knocked from his horse by the knight's fierce assault. The ebb of battle continued up the hill, and Herringdale let it pass him by. Retrieving his charger (who Des had christened "Smuggy" since he was a smug warhorse), Herringdale made his way back to the camp. As pre-dawn light began to fill the sky, he looked out over a scene of wanton carnage. The mucky, muddy ground was soaked with blood. Corpses lay scattered about, some alone, others in small groups. Smoke from burning buildings blew across the field of battle; up on the hill, new fires were being set by Ulfius and his men, who were busy slaughtering the rest of the garrison and, judging from the screams that even now filtered down on the still dawn air, having their way with the women as well. Amidst all this Herringdale, his face smeared with soot, his hair matted with sweat and blood,  knelt down and prayed as he'd never prayed before...

...Fade in on a scene two weeks later. Stonehenge, where the first Pendragon, Aurelius Ambrosius, had been buried. Now another of the line was being laid to rest: Herringdale kept his eye on Uther, whose face was gray and drawn with grief as he watched his son being lowered into the ground. Yet there was already word that Uther intended to take the Duchess Igraine as his wife--perhaps the line would live on after all?

In the meantime, Uther had appointed many knights from his army to garrison the now-empty castles of Cornwall for the time being. Herringdale was dispatched to Tintagel, where the royal wedding was to take place. Despite word arriving of King Aelle sacking the town of Pevensey and sacrificing all its inhabitants--men, women, and children--to Wotan, preparations for a lavish, expensive ceremony were well under way when Herringdale arrived at Tintagel. He decided to invite his wife Elaine out for the festivities. Still a virtual pariah among the ladies of Salisbury, he felt she would enjoy a chance to mingle in a foreign environment where she was unknown and unsullied.

Elaine gratefully accepted the invitation and arrived two weeks later, along with most of the wedding guests around the same time. Soon Tintagel was overflowing with nobles, knights, ladies, squires, pages, entertainers, and countless craftsmen, servants, and assorted rabble. The GPC noted that Uther's wedding was an excellent opportunity for social interaction, and I wish I'd had more time to prepare for it as such. I'd meant to, but things are pretty hectic right now so I just sort of muddled my way through. I think it came off pretty well, but next time something like this is coming up on the horizon I'll be sure to put some proper prep work into it ahead of time.

At any rate, I described some of the worthies who were gathered there, including Herringdale's first glimpse of Igraine's daughters: the lovely, scheming Margawse; Elaine, the middle child; and young Morgan, darker than her sisters in complexion and personality--she said little and mostly sat observing everyone. I also let Herringdale roll some "courtly" skills to represent his mingling and socializing. He critted his Gaming roll, so I cut to a scene where he played a game of chess against another guest, Sir Alain de Carlion, a vassal of King Nanteleod of the Silures. As Herringdale graciously mopped the board with his opponent, he questioned Sir Alain about his homeland, the Irish kingdom of Estregales (Eastern Wales); Sir Alain spoke highly of his liege, and diplomatically of Uther when Herringdale asked for his opinion, a response that drew a sardonic chuckle from the Salisbury knight.

Not all of Herringdale's interactions were to be quite so cordial or pleasant, however. After the wedding, Herringdale shared a trencher with his wife, which made things especially awkward when a teenage page began giving Herringdale the eye. Ever the dutiful husband, Herringdale ignored the brash youth. He also declined to get involved in a boasting competition that developed later on as the knights in the hall became increasingly soused. Nevertheless, as the feast wound down, Duke Ulfius began telling the story of Gorlas's death--perhaps not a terribly courteous thing to do, as many knights who had until recently served the Duke of Cornwall were present at the wedding.

At one point, Ulfius was telling of his assault on the castle. "I rode up towards the great gates with Sir Herringdale at my side. Sir Herringdale, where are you? Ah, there you are! What happened to you, son? You were right there with me, then I lost you--I feared it might have been for good!"

Before Herringdale could speak, a voice rang out from one of the tables towards the far side of the hall. "I can answer your question, sir. The murderer of Duke Gorlas was delayed by me--I knocked him from his horse and sent him scurrying home like a chastened puppy!"

The hall became deathly quiet. A knight had risen up, his gray eyes meeting Herringdale from under a darkened brow. For his part, Herringdale remained quiet--the man was obviously drunk. But he did not look away from the knight, keeping his gaze steady and unflinching.

"I too thought him dead and first," the knight continued, "and had I realized at that moment that I'd merely unhorsed him I would have finished him off. But now I have a chance to finish the job and avenge the death of my lord. So Sir Herringdale, will you stand against me once more?"

With a curt nod and a strong "yes," Herringdale accepted. The challenge was set for first light the next morning, the duel to be to the death. Lady Elaine looked on, her mouth hanging open slightly, a shocked look on her face. Many at court shared her expression.

The morning dawned cold and gray. As Herringdale walked out  onto the grounds designated for the fight, he could hear the sea crashing against the cliffs of Tintagel. Seagulls circled overhead, squawking and crying. Sir Cynrain, the Cornish knight and former bodyguard of the Duke, waited, armed with sword and shield. I rolled Cynrain's Loyalty (Lord) passion--and got a Critical. Uh oh. In Pendragon, Critting a Passion is officially a Big Deal. It either doubles the knight's skill or adds 20, whichever is greater. Sir Cynrain's Sword skill was 21. Maximum skill is 40, which means every roll will be a Crit. Yikes.

Herringdale once again invoked his Honor passion and got a normal success, which raised his Sword skill to 28. Not too bad, but not great either--he'd be Critting on a 12 or better. I use a common houserule for two knights who both Crit their rolls. Normally that counts as a tie and neither side takes damage, but at high levels of play tied Crit rolls are the rule rather than exception. So I have a tied Crit do 1d3 damage to both combatants. This nicely models Arthurian literature, where two heroic-level knights duke it out literally all day, slowly amassing a host of bloody cuts and bruises and eventually collapsing in an exhausted heap. I figured Herringdale's best bet was to try and get as many Crits as possible and provoke just such an epic combat.

Instead, it was over in one combat round.

Sir Cynrain critted with a roll of 2. I think when Des saw that, she knew it was all over. She rolled a normal success, so at least that meant Herringdale would get his shield bonus. And he'd need all the help he could get. I rolled over 40 points of damage. Herringdale's best armor protection (chain+shield+Chivalry bonus) is 19, so he took 20-some-odd points of damage as the sword cleaved through his shield and slashed across his face, breaking his cheekbone and knocking out a half-dozen teeth. It was enough damage for a major wound, although still a couple points above Unconscious. Fortunately, Herringdale failed his Major Wound roll to stay conscious (with his high Valorous, had he remained conscious he probably would have insisted on continuing the fight), and I ruled that Duke Ulfius and Earl Roderick intervened at this point, ruling that Sir Cynrain had satisfied the terms of the challenge. The Cornishman, of course, felt differently.

"If he survives this wound, I will see to it he will not survive much longer."

Herringdale heard about all this weeks later, as he recovered at Tintagel. Lady Elaine had been sent for and she returned to tend to him. The Garrison Commander, Sir Thebert of Marlboro, kindly saw to pay for their upkeep at the castle, and they spent the winter there. In the end, the wound inflicted by Cynrain left a jagged scar across Herringdale's face, reducing his APP by 1 and leaving him with a new Distinctive Feature and a reminder of the grudge now borne against him.

Apparently Herringdale started feeling better eventually, and maybe Elaine finds scars sexy, because the Winter Phase revealed that she gave birth to another child, their fourth. This time it was a girl; unfortunately, she's destined to be "Sickly," meaning she'll suffer a -1 on Child Survival Rolls and only have 50 points for Attributes rather than 60 in the unlikely event Des chooses to play her as a PC. Meanwhile, up in Cameliard, Herringdale's sister (and Des's backup character), Queen Obelot, gave birth to a boy, much to King Leodegrance's delight.

And so we left off with Herringdale now fully recuperated and ready to take on another year. The events of 491 left him with an increasing sense of unease about the Pendragon and a distinct distate for Cornwall--and with a sworn enemy to add to his seemingly ever-growing list. What tangled webs these knights weave...
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