Monday, March 15, 2010

[Solo GPC] 496: Anarchy in the U.K.

And so we enter the Anarchy Phase.

Unlike most other phase transitions in the GPC, the Anarchy Phase doesn't mark any major shift in technology, social mores, fashion, or much of anything, really. A note is made at the beginning of the chapter that we've moved into the equivalent of 11th-century history, and that the power of the Myth is starting to increasingly displace the reality of 6th-century History, but all in all it's a pretty subtle transition.

Not so subtle, however, when looked at from the perspective of our hero, Sir Herringdale, who now finds himself Marshall of a county adrift without a leader in a troubled sea of enemies. This isn't called the Anarchy Period for nothing folks.

The most significant transitional element, actually, comes in the shift of focus in the GPC's narrative. As I've mentioned before, the Uther Period is a time of fairly structured and scripted events, a sort of "training wheels" period for the player-knights and the GM alike. The wheels are now off, and it will largely be up to Sir Herringdale to determine his own fate, as well as to play a major role in determining the fate of Salisbury. Then there's the matter of the King's death--the land and the King are one, after all, and Uther's death has begun a process of breakdown and unraveling between the ordered world and the Other Side...but let's not get ahead of ourselves here.

The year started out cold, miserable, and wet. Journeying to Sarum to meet with his new lord, Countess Ellen, Sir Herringdale made his way through a steady downpour of cold, early spring rain. Although still residing at Broughton Hall, he was now a banneret knight with nine vassals (including old favorites like Sir Leo, Sir Lycus, and Sir Jaradan) and much greater responsibility. He had been granted access to Du Plain Castle, a small shell keep on the extreme eastern border of Salisbury, not far down the road from the declining Roman town of Camelot. Although Du Plain was held by a steward of young Earl Robert (age four), Countess Ellen had granted rights to Sir Herringdale to use the castle as a staging point or fall-back defense in any military operations in eastern Salisbury. Vagon Castle, formerly held by Sir Elad, was to serve a similar purpose for the west county.

Thoughts of vassals and land rights and military campaigns weighed heavily on Herringdale's mind as he passed through the city gates of Sarum. The town itself seemed more subdued than usual, and not just due to the rain. Here and there, shops were shuttered, their occupants having fled the city for perceived safer lands abroad. Few townsfolk walked the streets, and those who did kept mostly to themselves, affording the Marshall only the smallest gesture of salutation before hurrying on their way.

Arriving at the hall of Sarum Castle, Herringdale was ushered in immediately. The great hall seemed cold and lifeless, dim in the half-light filtering in through the side windows along the southern wall. With the hall largely empty and devoid of the usual crowd of courtiers, the sound of Herringdale's boots echoed loudly as he approached the Earl's throne. For a moment, he expected to see his old lord Roderick seated there, but instead it was his wife, Countess Ellen, draped in a vaguely Roman-style sleeved tunic, her pretty face wearing a perpetual frown.

Herringdale's arrival had been announced as the Countess was in conversation with two knights. One Herringdale recognized immediately: Sir Brastias, Uther's old right-hand man who had accused Herringdale of treason! The other appeared to be an emissary from Duke Ulfius of Silchester. Having both received grievous wounds at the Battle of St. Albans, Brastias and Ulfius constituted two of the highest-ranking knights now remaining in Logres. Both visitors to the hall carried news from abroad, and each had been in the process of giving reports to Ellen when Herringdale arrived. With the Marshall now present, the Countess bade the men continue.

The courier from Ulfius brought news that his lord had largely recovered from his wounds but was still unable to travel long distances. The Duke of Silchester had sent a courier in his stead to notify Countess Ellen that the Supreme Collegium was meeting in two weeks' time at London to decide upon the matter of electing a new king. Ever since the departure of the Romans, the Collegium, a congress of nobles and prelates, had met to elect a new High King of Britain, and they would do so now, despite the lack of any apparent heir to the throne, not to mention the fact that of the 28 positions comprising the Collegium, only nine had not fallen victim to the infamous poisoning.

Sir Brastias clearly thought little of the Collegium, and said as much, interjecting with news of a miraculous event in London: in the courtyard of St. Paul's Cathedral a sword struck through an anvil mounted on a great stone had appeared one night. From whence it came, no one could say, but the stone bore some kind of inscription to the effect of "whosoever pulls this sword from the stone shall be king."

"It didn't budge for me!" said Brastias, a sardonic smile on his face. As Brastias talked, Herringdale appraised him coolly. Here was a man, Herringdale reflected, who had lost nearly everything he held true and dear. Despite recovering from his battle wounds, it was clear that Brastias would never again regain his full health or strength. His legendary sense of Mercy kicking in, Herringdale resolved to give Brastias a fresh look in the future and let bygones be bygones.

At this point, Brastias segued into far grimmer news: bands of Saxons were roving the countryside unchecked, Picts were swarming down through Malahaut, Irish raiders were plying the seas and raiding the western shores, and news from Brittany indicated that King Idres of Cornwall was massing for a cross-channel invasion.

Clearly the time had come to find a new High King to push back against these varied threats, and Herringdale made his views on this matter quite clear, holding forth with a passionate speech--a speech that was interrupted by the arrival of a new guest. As the steward of the castle announced the name, Herringdale could scarcely believe his ears: Prince Aescwine of the East Saxons.

Countess Ellen quickly signaled for the three knights to stand behind her throne and look intimidating as the hall door swung open and Aescwine strode in, two retainers following in the wake of his flowing cloak. Suppressing rising bile in his throat, Herringdale studied the Saxons. Neither the Prince nor his retainers were a hair under six feet tall, and all had flowing blonde locks and great bushy handlebar moustaches. Yet none were armed, and in fact Herringdale noted the fine cut of their clothing, the embroidered fabric, the delicate gold filigree on Aescwine's cloak brooch.

"What valiant knight did he steal that brooch from, I wonder?" Herringdale muttered to himself.

Aescwine came to a halt ten feet before the Countess and gave her a curt bow.

"My lady," the Aetheling began, "I haff come on behalf of my vater, ze King of Essex, vit a proposal."

(And let me tell you, it was a blast being able to dust off my hoary German accent.)

Aescwine proceeded to outline the terms: Salisbury stood alone in dire and uncertain times. If the Countess could see fit to providing a tribute to Essex of 100 head of cattle and 100 pounds of silver, the King would see to it that no other Saxon forces would trouble Salisbury for the coming year.

"Zis is not wassalage," Aescwine stressed. "Alzoo, if you saw fit to swear fealty to Essex, the terms of ze tribute would be greatly reduced and ze benefits even greater."

By now Herringdale was grinding his teeth with anger and frustration. "What do this savages know of vassalage and fealty? They are like children playing at a grown man's game!" he thought to himself. Yet the Countess did not immediately send the barbarians away.

"Aetheling Aescwine, your proposal merits some thought. Please remain here as a guest in my hall while I consult with my advisors. I will have an answer for you by Pentecost."

Aescwine gave the Countess a confused look.

"Er, that is, six weeks from now."

"Ah," said Aescwine. "Zat is acceptable."

"Bloody heathen savages," muttered Herringdale under his breath.

As Aescwine and his entourage were led away, Ellen turned to her Marshall.

"Lord Herringdale, since you feel so strongly about the matter of finding a High King, I duly appoint you to attend the meeting of the Supreme Collegium in the stead of Earl Robert. You will not be allowed to cast a vote, but you can speak on our behalf and at any rate I expect you to report back here with a report before Pentecost. Go with God, for the roads are no longer safe."

"My lady," said Herringdale with a deep bow.

A week later, Herringdale was out on the high road. Traveling with him was Sir Jaradan, known throughout the county for his prowess with the sword and now one of Herringdale's vassals. Taking the southerly route via Camelot, the knights avoided Levcomagus, seat of Sir Blaines, known enemy of Salisbury, and managed the three-day ride without incident (despite my best dice-rolling efforts...).

Arriving at London, Herringdale found it every bit the thronging mass of stinking humanity that he had experienced during his first visit some years earlier. At least this time around his status as official representative of the Countess of Salisbury afforded him a room in the White Tower of London, one of the city's two castles. Entering from Lud's Gate in the west wall, Herringdale had to cross town to get to the Tower; en route, he spotted the hulking monolith of St. Paul's Cathedral and decided to take a quick detour and scope out this so-called Sword in the Stone.

"It's only a model..." "Shh!"

Crossing the courtyard, Herringdale spotted the thing easily enough--it had a group of knights clustered around it even now, discussing amongst themselves, stroking their chins thoughtfully. Approaching the group, Herringdale could see the monument clearly for himself. It was a simple sword sticking blade-first into an anvil, as if it had been driven into the iron by sheer strength. After introducing himself to the other knights, who were all in town for the meeting of the Collegium, Herringdale stepped up, placed his hand on the hilt, and tugged. I rolled a d20 and...nothing. Not a budge. Just to be sure he gave it one more pull, but still nothing. Examining the blade, Herringdale could see that it cleanly entered the anvil--there was no sign of it being a half-sword or of the blade resting in a groove or any other such artifice. Shrugging, he stepped back and allowed Sir Jaradan a try; Jaradan had as much luck as anyone else. The other knights invited Herringdale and Jaradan to a local alehouse for refreshments, and so the remainder of the afternoon was passed drowning various sorrows in the flowing bowl.

This would prove to be an appropriate start to Herringdale's week in London. I asked Des to summarize her feelings on the trip and she said:

It was the usual dusty, dirty trip to London filled with tedium and revulsion.

Couldn't have said it better myself! Of course, that was the precise feeling I was hoping to invoke, so good job to me for pulling it off.

Essentially, on top of the usual encounters with snot-nosed cityfolk and labyrinthine streets, Herringdale was confronted with a tragi-comedy in the form of the "Supreme" Collegium--the once-glorious institution now reduced to a coterie of bickering noblemen and bishops, all arguing over precedence and protocol. The first day got nowhere, and a second meeting was postponed for five days. In the interim, Herringdale passed his time as best he could. He attended mass at the old Roman basilica. He played many games of chess with Jaradan, winning most of them, exchanging gossip as they did so. Herringdale learned that Queen Igraine had retired to Amesbury Abbey, as planned, and had taken her young teenage daughter Morgan with her. He also ran all over London (nearly trampling a beggar at one point; in recompense, Herringdale gave the wretch a jeweled ring worth one librum[!], getting a Generous check in the process), as he attempted to schedule audiences with select members of the Collegium, including Duke Ulfius of Silchester--the better to try and talk some sense into him--and his brother-in-law, King Leodegrance of Cameliard. In the former case, Herringdale was stymied at all turns, informed that the Duke was seeing no one. In the latter case, familial ties granted Herringdale and audience, and he managed to have a frank and earnest talk with the king.

(In this case, I made absolutely no attempt at a Patrick Stewart impersonation, knowing that I'd only embarrass myself.)

In the course of conversation, Herringdale expressed his supreme frustration with the Supreme Collegium, reiterating his sincere belief that the selection of a new High King should be of the highest priority. Leodegrance gently reminded his brother-in-law that it was for that very reason that protocol should be followed to the letter, the better to make sure the right man would be chosen.

"We don't want to put another Vortigern on the throne, after all," said Leodegrance.

"I suppose we don't," said Herringdale, and he took his leave.

When the Collegium next convened, Herringdale was hoping to see some kind of progress being made, but if anything it was even worse than the first day. Finally, exasperated, Herringdale leapt to his feet and made an impassioned speech, imploring the assembled worthies to move forward and quickly. Des made her Orate roll but failed to Crit, so I ruled that Herringdale's speech managed to make a brief impression, but soon the Collegium was up to its old tricks.

Completely exasperated and fed up, Herringdale stormed out of the hall and was soon riding west for Salisbury with Jaradan in tow. Even before Herringdale had left, two other members had also packed up for home, including Ulfius of Silchester.

The journey back was shaping up to be another peaceful one until, just outside of Camelot, the Salisbury knights met up with a group of knights riding hard up the road in the other direction. Herringdale hailed the travelers, who reigned in their lathered horses, looks of panic in their eyes.

"Sir knight, is this the road to Silchester?" asked one hurriedly.

"It is," replied Herringdale. "Who are you and why do you ride in search of the Duke?"

"We are knights of Hampshire," said the knight, "and we bring ill news. A fresh fleet of Saxons has landed and even now engages our land in battle. We seek the assistance of Duke Ulfius and cannot tarry longer!"

With that, the knights set spur to horse and took off up the road. Herringdale was most distressed by this news; Hampshire was immediately south of Salisbury. If this new wave of invaders managed to establish a foothold there, then the wolves truly would be on the doorstep.

The two knights continued on and soon came across a column of refugees also fleeing up from the south. Their faces were blackened with dirt and soot, and they carried only what they could heft on their backs or in small hand trucks, a few goats and cows lowing along at their feet. From these refugees Herringdale received the shocking news that the battle was already over. The defenders of Hampshire had been obliterated and scattered and the city of Hantonne had fallen to the Saxon king.
Worried, Herringdale and Jaradans hastened for home.

As they neared the border of Salisbury, the two knights encountered a third group of travelers. They cut a strange appearance indeed: although they looked British, and were mounted and armed in the manner of knights, their overall appearance seemed more Saxon than Cymric. As they approached under flag of truce and began to speak, it was with heavy Saxon accents. What was going on here?

"Ve are messengers bearink vord from King Cerdic," said the lead knight. "Ve seek knights of Salisbury."

"Then you have found two," said Herringdale, still not sure whether to draw steel and cut these imposter knights down where they stood. Only his innate sense of Honor prevented him from doing so. "But who are you?"

"Ve are British, like you, though our tongues may not sound it and our dress may not look it. Ve are men of ze Gevessi tribe."

Gewessi. The name seemed to ring a bell for Herringdale, though he couldn't quite place it. Weren't they one of the old tribes from long ago that once made their in the Hampshire area?

"As a messenger for ze king, I seek an audience vit your lord," said the Gewessi knight. "To assure you of our intentions, know zat I am Prince Cynric, ze king's son, and I give myself over to you as hostage."

Cocking an eyebrow, Herringdale thought it over. As Marshall of Salisbury, it was his duty to enforce the law of the land and act in a manner consistent with his lord's wishes. He decided to take a chance and escort this Prince Cynric and his entourage to see Countess Ellen.

Along the way, Jaradan and Herringdale had a quiet conversation.

"The Gewessi," said Jaradan. "Weren't they the tribe that Vortigern hailed from?"

As the sun set, the group arrived at Sarum. There Prince Cynric once again stated his case: King Cerdic wished to see the Countess in person and explain his position. He would meet her in Hantonne with a feast befitting one of her stature, and Prince Cynric would remain as hostage in Sarum to guarantee her safety. With the Aescwine deadline looming, the Countess seemed interested in the possibility of exploring other options for an alliance. Much to Herringdale's discomfort, she agreed to ride south.

Two days later the Countess and her entourage of some 20 knights and 100 attendants rode south for Hantonne. Herringdale was, of course, along for the trip to guarantee safe journey and arrival. As the train passed into Hampshire, they saw little evidence of the depredations of war. Most of the peasants were still in hiding, but the fields had not been spoiled, villages were largely untouched, and so forth. Hantonne itself bore evidence of the usual amount of pillaging, but nothing excessive.

The city's citadel was occupied by King Cerdic, and the Countess was indeed met there with a lavish feast. Seated next to Ellen, Herringdale kept a close eye on his hosts, refusing to eat anything and vainly attempting to convince the Countess to follow his lead. The feast passed without any poisonings, however, and Herringdale, his belly rumbling with hunger, listened as King Cerdic made his case.

It seemed that Jaradan had been right--the Gewessi were indeed Vortigern's men. That old king, the one who had infamously invited the Saxons to Britain in the first place, had wed a Saxon princess and their son was the man now standing before them a conqueror of Hampshire. Cerdic then went on to elaborate that, due to his royal blood, he was the obvious candidate for High King, and that he had come to Britain to take that title, either peacefully or by force if need be. With that, he entreated his guests to discuss the matter amongst themselves and excused himself.

Although the king was now gone, his knights weren't, and they began circulating among the guests, praising their lord's generosity and battle prowess. But Herringdale had had enough. Approaching the Countess, he begged her grant him leave to return to Sarum and minister to its defense and maintenance during her absence. She granted him that request and he left that night, riding through the darkness for home, his head spinning with thoughts of the topsy-turvey world he now found himself in. Saxon alliances...knights who dressed and sounded like Saxons...foreign kings... What was the best option for Salisbury? The County could not stand alone, that much was certain...

Four days later, Countess Ellen arrived back at Sarum after being entertained by King Cerdic and his vassals. There was much to discuss, and she looked to Marshall Herringdale for advice. After due discussion and consideration, Herringdale advised against pledging fealty to Cerdic or any other Saxon lord, but did advise, for the time being, paying tribute to the East Saxons. As much as it galled him to do so, he knew it would buy Salisbury time to pursue other options. To that end, he also advised sending messengers to the courts of King Lot and King Nanteleod, the better to open up channels of communication with an eye towards an eventual alliance.

After the consultation, Ellen summoned Prince Aescwine to the hall and told him to carry news back to his father: Salisbury would levy the requested tribute. Aescwine flashed a triumphant smile, and with a swirl of his cloak swiftly departed.

After spending the remainder of the summer traveling around the county levying taxes for the tribute, Herringdale returned to Broughton Hall, exhausted. As he tended to his own affairs, we moved on to Winter Phase. And what an interesting Phase it was...

What we've been doing since Year One of the campaign is running both of Des's characters through Winter Phase. For her backup character, Lady Obilot, these Winter Phases have always been relatively brief--we mainly wanted to make sure we were keeping adequate track of her skill advancement and Glory accumulation against the day she might have to step up into the spotlight. But we also went through the Family Events phase, which is how she ended up married to King Leodegrance of Cameliard and giving birth to two sons. I knew that next year, in 497, Guenevere was due to be born to Leodegrance, so that was set up to be a "scripted event" that would befall Obilot. Furthermore, I wasn't sure what to do with those two boys...I mean, Guenevere's supposed to be Leodegrance's only child, right? Fortunately, the power of the Myth decided to exert itself and intervened with the dice rolls this year.

Before I get into what happened, a word about Pendragon's mechanics. One thing that strikes me as odd--not in a negative sense, mind you, just...odd--is the fact that bonuses in Pendragon don't always work in your favor. See, in most RPGs bonuses generally mean no matter what you'll be better off with your dice roll than if you didn't have the bonus. That's generally true with Pendragon, but not always. For example, since a Critical result for any skill under 20 is the effective skill value, a bonus can actually deny you a Crit if you end up rolling the number corresponding to the original skill value. This has happened to me a couple times as a player and it's more than a little frustrating.

In the case of Lady Obilot, since she was being maintained at a "Superlative" lifestyle she had a +5 to the Childbirth table. That's usually a good thing, except that there are a couple decidedly bad results sitting smack dab in the middle of the table. And so it was that during this year's Winter Phase I rolled a "9" modified to "14"--result: "Child born, mother dies." Wow. A roll for gender came up with "5"--a girl. So I guess Guenevere was born a year early in our timeline.

Next, I rolled for Child Survival. With their Superlative lifestyle bonus, the boys would die only on a roll of "1". Anyone want to tell me what the odds of rolling two "1"'s in a row are? Because I beat those odds. So in one year, Leodegrance lost his two sons and his wife--no wonder he ends up doting on his one remaining daughter and never re-marries!

Des had a great insight too: Obilot was to her dying day an unreformed Pagan. Obviously, in the wake of all his losses, King Leodegrance decided he was being punished by God for being so tolerant of his wife's un-Christian ways and recommitted to bringing Guenevere up in the Church.

So, quite unexpectedly, Des's backup character has died before her main character did! We talked about rolling up a new backup character, but decided against it. I can see the use of having a character waiting in the wings in a group campaign, but for a one-on-one game it's really not necessary. If Herringdale dies, Des can generate a new character on the spot and no one else is sitting around waiting for her to finish up before we can continue on.

At any rate, back at Broughton Hall it was a fairly uneventful Winter Phase, especially in comparison. The tribute levied this year put a dent in Herringdale's revenue, but he was still able to cover his expenses (barely)--and another Marvelous Goose was born, bringing his stock of geese-who-laid-the-golden-eggs to five!

All in all I was quite satisfied with this first year of the Anarchy Phase. I had wanted to impart some level of appreciation of the desperate times, the severity of the Saxon menace, and the feeling that Herringdale is largely on his own. I think I succeeded in all these goals. Despite ten years of fighting them, this year marked the first time Des had to actually interact with Saxons off the battlefield, and I dare say they came off as even more intimidating in a non-martial environment (then again, maybe my slick German accent was just freaking her out). The frustrating grind of the Supreme Collegium clearly communicated that Herringdale could no longer look to high nobility for leadership or guidance. And the emergence of the various factions all putting pressure on Salisbury presages a time of political maneuvering and the constant threat of invasion that will characterize the age. Of course, it's not all politicking and back-stabbing, but that will be a story for another year...

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