Monday, February 15, 2010

[Solo GPC] 493: A Terrible Gnashing of Teeth

This year proved to be a real nail-biter, both in regular play and in the Winter Phase. It was also kind of a big shift thematically, which threw Des for a bit of a loop, but I had my reasons. Permit me to explain my GMing machinations...

On paper, the year 493 in the GPC is a whole lotta nothin'. Earl Roderick goes on a diplomatic mission to Malahaut to try and drum up support for an alliance but meets only brick walls and eventually returns home all put out. No thanks. Plus--and especially after the rail-roady events of the previous year--I thought a little break was in order from all the scripted stuff. Branch out a bit, refocus things on Sir Herringdale's personal life and struggles. As Uther's kingdom begins to fall apart, as the High King withdraws into melancholy and illness, what goes on in the life of one of the kingdom's most esteemed knights?

I had downloaded an adventure from RPG Archive a few weeks ago called "The Adventure of the Poisoned Lake" and was looking for a chance to use it. It features some mystical elements, but nothing too over the top for pre-Enchantment Britain. I really liked how the GPC had gotten off the ground with fighting a Giant; I wanted to get back to that a bit this year.

See, the way the time line works, you're not going to see a bunch of crazy faeries and goblins and manticores and what-have-you running around Britain until the so-called Enchantment begins, shortly after Arthur takes the throne. Uther period adventures are much more pragmatically-based. But there are still supernatural elements lurking about the fringes--sort of the "supernatural natives," if you will. I thought the Poisoned Lake adventure would stand up well to that litmus test.

In the course of planning things out, I started thinking about adding a little more to the year's events. Every period in the GPC has a dozen or so short mini-scenarios listed at the back, things that the GM can just sprinkle in here and there to add little touches distinctive of the period. I chose to throw first one, then two of these mini-scenarios into the mix once Herringdale got through the Adventure of the Poisoned Lake (or rather, if he got through--as written, this is not a solo-PC-friendly adventure!).

So yes, I made some tweaks to the deadliness factor of the adventure as written. But Herringdale nearly bought it twice even then. Granted, the first time was because Des was unlucky enough to have me roll a "20" on the Enchanted Forest Encounter Table, but still...

The action got rolling with Herringdale returning home after serving an uneventful period of garrison duty at Sarum Castle while Earl Roderick was away in Malahaut getting the runaround and being ambushed by Saxons. It was midsummer's eve when Herringdale was riding back to Broughton Manor, but he hadn't quite arrived home when he was flagged down by a frantic-looking peasant boy.

The boy reported that there'd been a terrible murder up at Crimson Lake. It was a site on the boundaries of Herringdale's lands, back in the woods a bit. It got its name from rumors that the normally blue-green waters of the small lake would turn crimson on certain nights when the stars were right. Herringdale had been up to the lake a couple times as a boy, but hadn't been back around since returning to Broughton Hall. He was vaguely aware of an old woman who lived near the lake, said to be a priestess of the old ways, and mostly knew of the place through his sister, who visited it and the old woman much more frequently.

Still, the boy's reports bore looking into, so Herringdale spurred Smuggy II down the trail that led into the woods. Presently he arrived at the lake and took in a most disturbing scene. The waters of the lake had turned a foul brown and the stench of rotting corpses hung heavy in the air. Resisting the urge to vomit, Herringdale rode into the clearing and quickly spotted the still form of an old woman lying near the water's edge. All around her the ground was soaked with blood, and when Herringdale dismounted and came near, he could see a massive sword wound splitting her chest in twain.

So imagine his surprise when he also saw signs of life in the old woman! He knelt beside her and whispered, "Who did this to you?"

She looked at Herringdale with gray eyes and told him of a knight clad in black who came and cursed the waters of the lake. When she tried to stop him, he cut her down. That was at midnight and she had willed herself to stay alive until someone would come and promise to restore the lake. She told Herringdale of a spring dedicated to the god Creudylad deep in the woods. If that pure, restorative water were to be taken and poured into the lake, surely the curse would be lifted.

Herringdale promised the old woman he would take up this task, and she died with a smile on her face.

Now, the adventure notes there's a couple ways to find out where the spring is. The first is to seek out someone knowledgeable in such things. I had decided that if Herringdale were to travel to Cameliard and seek out his sister, the Queen, she could tell him where the spring was. But Des was clearly not to be bothered with such detours, and instead had Herringdale plunge ahead into the woods in the hope of stumbling upon the spring on his own.

This was the second option, and was potentially quite risky. Plunging into the woods meant that the spring would be found after 2d6 days. I rolled right in the middle: six. For every day spent in the woods, I got to roll on the aforementioned Enchanted Forest Encounter Table. Results could range from "Nothing" to "Confused Peasant" to "Carniverous Horse" (kinda wish I'd gotten that one) to "Dog from Hell". Guess which one I rolled on the first day...

The Dog from Hell was aptly named. In the adventure as written, it has the stats of a lion, but I toned it down a shade (just a shade, mind you) to make it a bit more of a challenge and less of an "instant death" type deal. Even then, there was a point where we both thought Herringdale was a goner for sure.

See, the Dog charged in, Herringdale got a good blow in, then the Dog clawed at him with such force that it knocked him from his saddle. On the ground, Des then proceeded to roll a Fumble as the Dog went for Herringdale's throat! Fortunately, the damage rolled low, but even then it left Herringdale just three points above Unconscious level. Des briefly considered evading, but since she was the sole combatant and the Gmork, er, Dog had a higher move than Herringdale or even his horse, she decided it was do or die time.

Then things got really dire: she tried to do a Passion roll to inspire Herringdale and missed! The Passion was Love (Family), the assumption being that, near death, Herringdale would turn to thoughts of his children and old mother and think, "No, I can't die!" Apparently not. The failure of this would lead Herringdale to seriously question a lot of his core beliefs, but in the meantime he was due to suffer an additional -5 for failing to inspire himself. Oh dear.

Then a rather remarkable series of dice rolls ensued. I kept rolling successes for the Dog, but they were low numbers time and again. And Des kept rolling higher than me but still under her adjusted Sword skill of 14. So bit by bit she was hacking away at the hell-beast as it growled and snapped and clawed. Then she did it; she rolled a Critical. Double damage. After armor, she did 25 points of damage to the beast, and it just so happened to have 25 hit points remaining.

The previous round both combatants had rolled a tie, so I'd said the Dog had clamped its slavering jaws down on Herringdale's blade. So naturally the Crit meant that Herringdale used this to his advantage, pinning the Dog with one knee, then pushing his sword blade back through the creature's jaw and skull, slowly beheading it as black, sticky blood oozed and spurted. Wicked!

Fighting to his feet, panting and sweaty, Herringdale turned and staggered back to his faithful squire Belerant, who managed to do some nice First Aid work and bring back a few hit points to our wounded hero. Wincing, he mounted up and continued on into the woods.

Des's dice luck continued to hold as over the next five days. I rolled up nothing more threatening than a trail of fallow deer. Just as well; the encounter with the Hell Hound was plenty, and there were grave tasks that still lay ahead!

So finally Sir Herringdale stumbled into the sacred grove holding the Spring of Creudylad. Entering cautiously, leading his horse with one hand and holding his sword extended with the other, Herringdale was ready for anything--except what greeted him in the clearing...

First he heard a squeaky voice: "You are not supposed to be here! No no no! Away with you!"

Looking down, he saw the voice addressing him belonged to a beaver. The creature was standing on its hind legs in the manner of a man and was dressed in fine silks and velvets custom-tailored for its diminutive size.

Taken completely off guard, Herringdale didn't know what to say other than explain why he had come. The beaver responded that only priests of Creudylad were allowed to visit the spring--and there'd been none of that type seen for many a year.

"Now away with you or there will be a terrible gnashing of teeth!" warned the beaver in its high-pitched voice. As if to demonstrate, it moved with lightning speed to a nearby tree and bit through a thick branch with a single snapping of its chompers.

Sweating a bit, Herringdale held his ground. "I am here on behalf of a lady of the Crimson Lake, one who was faithful to your gods. By taking this water, I can purify the great crime that was done upon her and the lake."

Clearly irritated, the beaver nonetheless acquiesced a bit. "Very well. You may take some water, but first you must pass three tests: a test of Wit, a test of Whim, and a test of Will. If you fail any of these, there will be a terrible gnashing of teeth!"

Herringdale agreed.

The first test, Wit, was simply a riddle. Des groaned when I announced this. I sympathized; I'm no good at these sorts of things either when I'm on the player side of the game. However, I'd looked over the list of riddles given in the adventure, and they seemed challenging enough without being too difficult. Of course, it's always easy to overestimate such things when you have the answer right in front of you.

I rolled a d6 to determine which riddle the Guardian Beaver would ask and got this: "I drive men mad For love of me, Easily beaten, Never free."

Can you, the audience at home, guess the answer?

Des thought for a couple seconds, and then blurted out, "Oh! Is"

Correct! Hooray! A terrible gnashing of teeth was avoided--for the time being at least.

Next up, Whim. This was simply a test of the beaver's whim: "Give me a name," he said. The adventure as written said the beaver would accept only a proper Cymric name, not a Latin or Christian one. I agreed with the latter part, but I decided that the test would be successful if I, the GM, found the name either appropriate or amusing. Des knocked it out of the park with her suggestion: Scuttlebutt Winwillows. I laughed for a good minute, then, in character as the beaver, said, "This pleases me."

The last test was Will and was deceptively simple: the beaver asked if Herringdale had the will to agree to a promise that at some point in the future his first-born son would be called upon to fulfill a task of the beaver's choosing. Here Des displayed a bit of a mercenary streak when she reasoned that it was quite possible her first-born son wouldn't survive childhood, making the promise moot. So she agreed! I'm sure the kid will thank her in 20 years or so when a friggin' talking beaver shows up on his doorstep. Duly noted, and moving along...

The tests passed, Herringdale filled his waterskin with spring water and headed back into the forest. Making a Hunting roll, he easily found his way back to the lake within the day (meaning, yes, if he'd gone to his sister first for directions he'd have only faced a single roll on the Enchanted Forest table--men and asking directions, am I right ladies?).

Right, so now Herringdale was back at the lake, which looked just as polluted and awful as ever. He had been gone a week. The lady's body was gone--he had sent the boy who had first found her back to the manor to gather a team for proper burial (which, ironically, meant she was laid to rest in a Christian cemetery...). The stains from her blood could still be seen on the grass where she'd lain. Herringdale poured a tiny bit of spring water over the grass and the blood immediately washed away. What's more, small wildflowers sprang up in spots where the water splashed. Clearly this stuff was going to do the trick. He approached the lake, sword in one hand, skin in the other.

At this point, the other great hazard of the adventure made itself known, as a mass of octopoid tentacles sprang from the murky depths and snaked around Herringdale's limbs, dragging him into the lake easily. The monster as written is a real toughie, with three different attacks, tons of hit points, and a high armor value. I reduced its three attacks to just one, the grapple, and its sole tactic was to drown those it grabbed. Since Herringdale had the stopper off the waterskin, the spring water started leaking into the lake immediately, doing 10 points of damage to the Creature per round. With 80 hit points, it would take 8 rounds to kill it. Time to start tracking how long Herringdale could hold his breath!

The Suffocation rules are very straightforward: make a CON roll each round with a cumulative -1 modifier after the first round. Once you fail a CON roll, you start taking 1d6 damage per round. With a CON of 19, Herringdale made it through five rounds before he started taking damage. Since he was already wounded from his  fight with the Dog from Hell, however, he didn't have far to go before the icy fingers of death started creeping in. I rolled damage for round six, round seven, round eight...

"I'm unconscious," Des announced. Talk about timing! I described how things looked from the perspective of the squire Belerant: after getting dragged into the lake, there was a great amount of thrashing and bubbling. With each bursting bubble, the water seemed to clear a bit more and more. Finally, the water cleared up entirely just as the thrashing stopped for good. Squinting, Belerant could just make out Herringdale lying at the bottom of the lake, weighed down by his armor. Fortunately, he was only about five feet from the shore. Wading in, the faithful squire dragged his lord up onto dry land and began pumping Herringdale's legs against his chest. After several desperate seconds, Herringdale began coughing up water, then regained consciousness. All those years of boosting Belerant's First Aid skill every Winter Phase were really coming in handy!

With the lake cleared, Herringdale mounted up and headed for home. There was still the issue of the "knight in black" who had caused all this trouble in the first place. Des had a good idea of who it might have been--who else but the rogue Cornish knight, Sir Cynrain?

So imagine her surprise when Sir Herringdale returned home to find none other than Sir Cynrain waiting at his manor? What fresh hell was this?

Lady Elaine greeted her husband as he dismounted in the courtyard. She looked tired and strained even through she tried to greet him with a smile.

"What's the matter?" Herringdale asked. As if in answer, Sir Cynrain appeared in the doorway of the manor house, a tankard in one hand, a leering smile on his face.

"He showed up a month ago, my lord," said Elaine. (A month ago? That means he couldn't have been the "knight in black"!) "He claimed to be a brother in arms who had fought at your side, so I offered him hospitality, which he has since abused most grievously."

"If he has laid a hand on you--," Herringdale began.

"No, he has stopped short of that, thank God," said Elaine. "But the way he leers after the ladies of the house..." She shuddered.

At this point, Sir Cynrain had approached within earshot. "Now, now. It's not courteous to speak of your guests in such a way!" he chided. Sir Herringdale stepped forward, putting himself between his wife and the Cornishman.

"Now see here, sir," he said, waving a finger in Cynrain's face. "You have taken advantage of my household's hospitality long enough. It is time for you to leave."

Putting on an air of desperation, Cynrain responded with a mocking tone. "I am but a poor, lordless knight whose master was cruelly and unjustly slain in battle. I have nowhere else to go!"

Fuming, Herringdale was sorely tempted to strike Cynrain down on the spot. He held his anger in check, however (again, the high Merciful trait). Cynrain was dressed in tunic and breeches and had only a dagger at his belt. Not only would Herringdale be violating his hospitality if he struck out, he'd be attacking an unarmed opponent. His Honor would not allow such an action.

Rubbing the bridge of his nose, Herringdale took a deep breath and tried the non-violent approach.

"If what you say is true, sir," he said, "I can arrange for you to find a home at the household of my lord, Earl Roderick. He is a fair and just lord and would provide for you in return for faithful service. With the Saxon threat looming at our door, now is not the time for fellow knights to fight amongst themselves. What say you?"

I rolled a contest of Cynrain's Honor versus his Hate (Herringdale) passion. It was no contest after all: Cynrain spat on the ground, then took his glove off and dropped it at Herringdale's feet.

"First you murder my lord, then you suggest I submit to yours? I demand satisfaction for the crimes you've committed against me."

Herringdale stooped and picked up the glove. Handing it back, he said, "Very well. We shall let the Lord judge who is in the right. My only condition is this: I have been wounded in a fight with a great beast and I require time to heal my wounds. One month from now we shall meet in single combat. Until that time, you are welcome to continue enjoying my hospitality."

Wow! Checks for Honor, Generous, Merciful--way to hit Cynrain with the old shame spell, Herringdale!

The month passed with Cynrain continuing to act the boor and the bad guest. He farted at the dinner table and used the table cloth as a napkin; when Herringdale asked for a story to entertain everyone in the evenings, Cynrain would tell of a brave Duke of Cornwall who was treacherously struck down in combat; and so forth. Finally, the appointed morning arrived. The two knights, armed for battle, met in the courtyard of the manor. Anxious eyes watched from windows and doorways. Saluting each other, they closed for combat.

It was time to invoke Passions. Herringdale went with Honor and got it. Cynrain went for Hate (Herringdale) and missed! Des won the first round of combat and with a Crit to boot. Herringdale dealt a fearsome blow to Cynrain that knocked him to the ground. His face pale with shock and pain, Cynrain looked up at his opponent. Herringdale stood over him, sword held to Cynrain's throat.

"Again, I repeat my offer of a month ago. Renounce your hatred of me and submit to the service of Earl Roderick and I will let you walk away, honor intact. Or keep fighting and I will kill you. Cynrain's eyes flickered back and forth, clearly weighing the offer. He opened his mouth to speak--and then the iron bell at the top of the manor's stone tower began ringing frantically. Looking up, Herringdale saw the watchman leaning out, pointing to the south.

"Saxons! Saxons my lord! They--aaaagh!" Cut off in mid sentence, the watchman fell from the top of the tower with an arrow in his throat.

Des's reaction to this turn of events at such a crucial turning point can best be summarized with a single image:

Sheathing his sword, Herringdale ran to the top of the wooden palisade surrounding the manor. Out beyond the ripe fields lay the woods, and from them he could see about 500 Saxons emerging. Leading them was none other than that Saxon valkyrie, Wulfhilda. Even as he watched, he could see Saxon scouts wearing wolfskins had infiltrated through the wheat fields nearly up to the edge of the moat; it was one of their arrows that had felled his watchman. "God's teeth!" Herringdale cursed under his breath.

He immediately dispatched three messengers, sending them over the northern palisade and across the moat with instructions to make for Sarum and alert Earl Roderick of the raid. He watched as his messengers took off through the countryside, Saxon scouts hot on their heels. Now there was nothing to do but wait and hope the messengers made it and that the manor's defenses that he'd so carefully cultivated over the previous years would hold out.

Fortunately, Saxons are not known for their siegecraft, and were largely stymied in their attempts to overcome the fortified manor's defenses. Between its moat, palisade, stone tower, and tile roof, the manor proved nearly impregnable to a small raiding force. The manor's Defensive Value is a whopping 11 and gave Herringdale an effective Siege skill of 14, over three times that of Wulfhilda's. Soon Saxon corpses began piling up at the moat's edge, peppered with arrows and filling the air with their stench. In retaliation, the Saxons set fire to the fields around the manor, casting a pall of black smoke over the countryside, but they were not able to draw Herringdale out into open battle.

[Hmmm, maybe I should have required an opposed roll of his Hate (Saxons) versus Prudent. Ah well.]

At any rate, two weeks passed by with everyone in the manor doing their best to aid in the defense. Surprisingly, this included Sir Cynrain (pictured right). Initially, Herringdale had sent the knight into the manor house to have his wounds tended to. But after a couple days, Cynrain had risen from his bed and armored up, determined to help in the defense of his enemy's manor.

"You were right, sir," Cynrain told Herringdale. "Now is not the time for bickering. How can I help?"

After a fortnight, the iron bell atop the tower tolled once more, but this time the watchman was pointing to the west. "The Earl approaches! The Earl rides with his knights!"

It was true; Earl Roderick had mustered his household knights along with several vassals who were in the region and was riding towards the Saxon encampment. At the sight of this, Wulfhilda signaled a general retreat. The Saxon raiders melted back into the woods from whence they had come with the Earl's knights in hot pursuit.

Later that evening, Roderick was being feted by Herringdale in Broughton Hall. There he related the story of his journey north to Malahaut, where he had encountered dead ends and indications that the Centurion King was also negotiating with the Saxons! The Saxon war leaders Octa and Eosa had escaped from their jails and were raising a new army in the region. Giving up Malahaut for a lost cause, the Earl and his entourage were then ambushed by Saxons on the road home!

"We fought them off, of course," Roderick said. "Only to come home and find more wolves at my door!"

At this point, Herringdale spoke up. "My lord, in such times as these we could use all the help we can get. May I therefore recommend you take Sir Cynrain into your household? I can vouch for his bravery and skill as a warrior."

Earl Roderick chuckled. "I'm sure you can. I was there at Tintagel when he laid you out with a single blow, remember?"

Cynrain spoke up before Herringdale could respond. "My lord, I can assure you that Sir Herringdale has repaid that blow in kind since then," he said, rubbing his wound ruefully.

"Very well," said Roderick. "I can always use ambitious and skilled knights in my service."

"Then may I suggest," said Herringdale, sensing an opportunity, "you also consider Belerant here?"

The squire looked up in surprise. "Me?"

"Aye," said Herringdale. "You have served me well and faithfully and have demonstrated your valor and skill time and again. And after the incident at Crimson Lake, I can think of no better way to repay your having saved my life than to recommend you for knighthood."

"If Sir Herringdale judges the lad worthy of knighthood, then I will take that as recommendation enough!" said Earl Roderick. Belerant's knighting ceremony was set for a month from that day and we moved into the Winter Phase.

First, we addressed the need for a new squire. It transpired that Lady Elaine is a second cousin of the Countess of Rydychan, a county to the north-east of Salisbury on the edge of the Forest Sauvage. Through that connection, Herringdale acquired a young squire, the nephew of the Countess.

Despite the burning of his crops, Herringdale was able to salvage a Normal harvest from the year thanks to Lady Elaine's superior Stewardship skills. He also gained a Boon in the form of a cash reward from the Earl--quite fiting, I thought. It was nonetheless a tough winter. King Uther, languishing and ill at his court, mirrored the condition of the land. Two of Herringdale's children were so sick they nearly died (I rolled a "2" twice on the Child Survival Table--as a Rich Knight, Herringdale's children kick the bucket on a roll of "1"); meanwhile, Elaine gave birth to another child, a girl, but the labor was difficult and she nearly died, saved only by the ministrations of one of most skilled midwifes in the county (again, I rolled a 17--normally "Child born, mother dies"--but this was modified by Herringdale's Rich status). Des has decided this will be the last year Herringdale lies with Elaine, which can only bring on greater demands for a new love interest to show himself in the near future...

As for construction, his lesson learned this year, Herringdale built a quarter-mile long secret escape tunnel under his manor.

Meanwhile, in Cameliard, Queen Obilot gave birth to another child--a son again! Hmmm, one of these days a girl's bound to show up, right? At least she'll know what to name her.

And so that closed the book on 493. Phew! The Poisoned Lake adventure was, overall, a success, but Des felt that the events were a bit more on the "generic" side of fantasy. The lake monster certainly summoned up visions of Tolkien, but the talking beaver and black shuck I thought were well within the realm of Celtic mythology. To each their own, I suppose. We had a good time, so that's what matters most. And the combination of the "Presumptious Praetor" and "Manor Raid/Your Saxon Foe" mini-scenarios yielded some fantastic role-playing and genuinely tense moments.

Despite the three-part adventure, we had kind of blitzed through the action and felt like we had a little more left in us, so we pressed on to 494 and played through a bit of introductory material. But that's a story for the next entry. Til then!
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