Monday, July 12, 2010

[Solo GPC] 503: The Fall of London

(Ahem. The campaign has been moving along nicely, but I'm woefully behind on writing updates. Here then is the first...)

If this campaign were a video game, this year would have been a cut scene.

What I mean by that is that this was a year in which Herringdale was swept up in events greater than himself and largely stood by, impotent to help or attempt to make a change. There wasn't much in the way of dice rolling or action, but there was a fair amount of introspection into character motivation and mood. Accordingly, it was also a low point for Des as a player. Since I'm writing this update two (game) years further on, I can happily report that the despondence felt by both character and player was soon to lift, but this year saw a very real frustration set in.

In some ways, this was a good thing, as the whole point of the Anarchy Phase is to evoke an increasing sense of despair. A repeated feeling of defeat snatched from the jaws of victory, of missed opportunities, and of fruitless squabbling in the face of real threats; these are the feelings a Great Pendragon Campaign GM should be attempting to evoke between the death of Uther and the coming of Arthur. I'm sure that when we do get to the big event, there will be a palpable sense of relief and joy. In the meantime, we've got to slug it out through the grim years.

(It's times like this also that the limitations of solo play come into sharpest relief; solo gaming's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. That is, with a single PC you've got the ability to focus all the attention on a single character and their story arc. Normally, this can be quite fun and a nice change of pace from the usual ensemble approach. But when things turn nasty in the story arc, there is no reprieve. No other characters exist to take focus off that negativity, even for a brief moment. It can get a bit wearing for player and GM alike. Who would've thought solo-player gaming could get so intense?)

So what happened this year to cause so much despair and introspection? Nothing short of disaster, as Britain's heart was ripped out and trampled upon by Saxon dogs. But before that could even get underway, things got off to a rotten start right off the bat during our Winter Phase (remember, we've started doing Winter Phase of the previous year at the start of the session for the new year). A Catastrophe struck Broughton Hall; some petty vandal had somehow broken in to Sir Herringdale's private quarters and smashed the mosaic portrait of Sir Jordans that he had put in place there over a decade ago. What fiend would do such a thing? And was there some sort of significance behind the vandalism? Sir Herringdale thought that no one knew the true identity of the mosaic knight besides himself. Perhaps Prince Mark was spreading scandalous rumors about him? The household staff was questioned, but everyone had airtight alibis. Strange...

With the unexplained vandalism still troubling him, Herringdale set out for Sarum as spring got under way. As we'll recall, Salisbury had recently completed an alliance with the growing power of Escavalon through the marriage of Countess Ellen and King Nanteleod, two old lovers at last reunited. Although again a newlywed, Ellen was soon left behind by her new husband; she departed south back to Salisbury while he mustered his army for campaigning in the north - the Duchy of Lindsey was to be the prize in a fight between Escavalon and Malahaut.

This left Herringdale, Marshall of Salisbury and commander of Escavalon's Southern Marches, a tad perturbed. The Saxon threat, always smoldering, seemed ready to burst into flames at any moment. King Cerdic of Wessex, although intimidated somewhat by Salisbury's powerful new ally, was becoming increasingly bellicose in his threats, and Sir Uffo, the son of old Duke Ulfius of Silchester, brought ill news from the west: the Saxon kingdoms of Kent and Essex were mustering. Ulfius estimated that they would be marching up the Thames valley, extracting plunder and tribute, and feared an attack on London was imminent.

Word of the impending conflict was drawing mercenaries towards the southeast like blowflies to rotting meat, and Herringdale, in his capacity of Marshall, was in charge of granting passage to any company that wanted to move through Salisbury. And so he found himself hosting an acquaintance from his youth, a onetime enemy turned friend: Sir Cynrain of Cornwall. Duke Gorlas's old bodyguard had, since the death of Uther, steadfastly refused to swear allegiance to any lord, maintaining his own company of knights and footmen from a base in western Cornwall.

Conversing over a feast at Broughton Hall, Herringdale and Cynrain got caught up. Cynrain was obviously doing well for himself as a mercenary, and reported that he was not alone. Even old Sir Brastias had remained free of allegiances since the death of the old king, Cynrain said. He was also aware of at least one other mercenary company marching east, that of Sir Helifer, a renowned master of siegecraft somewhat notorious for his willingness to fight for the highest bidder, be they Cymric or Saxon.

After the feast, Herringdale stayed up late, pondering recent events. He wanted also to march east, to join the forces of Duke Ulfius and beat the Saxons back from the gates of London, to send them fleeing the Thames valley. But the dilemma of securing his own borders weighed heavily upon him. To fight effectively against the Saxons, Herringdale would have to take most of the county's knights and infantry on his march. But to do so in the face of King Cerdic's aggression would be to invite raids and plunder if not outright invasion.

With his treasury bulging after the ransom of Earl Sanam, Herringdale was able to arrive a decision that would both secure Salisbury's borders and allow its knights to march to war. In the morning, he approached Sir Cynrain with a proposition.

"What would you say if I were to tell you that you need march no further for your gold? Stay here in Salisbury and garrison our castles and manors. I will pay you double the rate you would have earned in battle."

Cynrain readily agreed, and Sir Herringdale issued the order to muster for battle. Two weeks later, he was ready to march at the head of a proud company of knights, his massive banner fluttering at his side. At Silchester, the Salisbury forces joined those of Ulfius as well as his allies from Marlborough and Rydychan. Some knights from more far-flung counties had even showed up of their own account; clearly the threat of London falling into Saxon hands had been enough to motivate some modicum of unity amongst the fractured lands of Logres.

And so Ulfius marched east towards London. At a council of war held outside Staines, Herringdale listened as Ulfius pointed at a crude map showing the Thames valley.

"Our scouts have reported that the armies of Aesc and Aethelswith are converging. The Essex army is on the north bank of the Thames, the Kentish forces on the south. They are clearly destined for London, where they will be able to cross the river and join forces. I propose we leave the footmen here and hasten to engage the Essex forces on even terms. Once the two Saxon armies combine, we will be hopelessly outnumbered."

Herringdale joined the other assembled lords and worthies in assenting to this plan, and in the predawn light of the following morning he mounted his new charger, Smuggy III, to lead his own company in the line of march. But it was to prove a short march. By mid-morning, Ulfius had called a halt and convened an emergency council. His scouts were now reporting that the Saxon armies had managed to unite earlier than expected - somehow they had gained access to boats, and the Kentish forces had slipped across the Thames the night before to join up with the army of Essex. Worse, a detachment of Saxons was now boating down the Thames, presumably bound for Staines, where they could launch an attack on Ulfius's army from the rear, cutting off any hope of escape.

The question was raised: march on for London and fight against impossible odds, or return to Staines, secure the base of operations, and look for an opportunity to draw the Saxons away from London? Herringdale again assented to the majority opinion, which held the latter course of action to be the wisest.

Back in Staines, Ulfius and his troops were easily able to beat off the Saxon detachment arriving by river, and having done so, attention turned to how best to engage the Saxons now. No ideas were forthcoming. A day passed, then a second, then a third. On the fourth day, the worst possible news reached the camp: London had fallen to the Saxons!

Everyone was stricken with utter disbelief. How could this have happened? Two days later, the full story was revealed by a portly merchant just arrived from London. The town mayor, guildsmen, and Bishop had negotiated the city's surrender. The Saxons had hired Sir Helifer the Mercenary, and he had brought fearsome siege engines. The walls were bombarded, hordes of Saxon footmen assailed the walls, and battering rams were moved into position to use against the city's ancient gates. The town fathers had seen the writing on the wall and, seeking to spare the city any great pillage, had arranged to meet with Sir Helifer to arrange a peaceful surrender of London to the Saxon kings. Now London was to be ruled jointly between Kent and Essex, its respective kings collecting tribute and revenue from the city on alternating years.

"Then there is nothing for it," Ulfius lamented. "All is lost."

Quietly, he rose and silently disappeared into his private quarters. The other assembled lords began to drift away as well. Herringdale, however, merely stood still, unable to move. His mind raced. A great welling surge screamed within him: to hell with Ulfius and the other cowards! Sound the call, mount up, and lead your company against the gates of London. It would be suicide, but at least it would be death in service of a just and worthy cause. But no, he thought. His responsibilities were too great. What would become of Salisbury should he fall now? What of his family? His vassals? There were too many that depended on him.

With a great sigh, Herringdale returned to his own quarters and began preparing to march back to Salisbury, his sword still sheathed, London fallen to the Saxons.

A week later, as he approached Broughton Hall, Herringdale mused that perhaps he should not have left his home behind after all. The other lords were right; no king ruled Logres, and it was each county for itself. The concerns of home should take precedence over the worries of his neighbors. For one thing, there was the matter of increasing bandit attacks originating in the Camelot Forest along the county's southern boundary. Something would have to be done about that next year...

(In retrospect, I did allow several points of decision for the PC so that it would not merely be a ride on the railroad. But I honestly had no idea if there was anything Des could do, and she was no better at coming up with a plan. It's a tough, tough year, and, as she valued Herringdale's life and the safety of Salisbury, there was little to do but watch events play out.)

As winter set in, some good news reached Broughton manor: King Nanteleod had prevailed in battle against Malahaut, and Duke Corneus of Lindsey (plus various other unallied lords) had sworn allegiance to him!

An updated map, showing the territories gained by Escavalon, Kent, and Essex in 503.
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