Tuesday, October 5, 2010

[Solo GPC] 513: Terrabil Swift Sword

Astute readers will have noticed that the campaign has been on pause the last couple weeks. I find that long-term campaigns sometimes need these "breathing periods" - brief pauses in which the campaign (to say nothing of the GM and players) catch their collective breath, as it were. I've also been busier than usual in real life thanks to an unexpected but very exciting career transition opportunity that's come up. But we've got our next session scheduled for this week, so regular updates should resume until they don't.

I'm particularly sorry to keep y'all waiting for this one since this was a bit of a short session. The shortness was owing to the fact that I know the next couple years should be pretty jam-packed; I like to pace the years of my Pendragon campaigns, separating the bigger, more epic years with either more low-key events or more straightforward activities. This year fell into the latter category; it was pretty much by the book with very little embellishment on my part. This was partly intentional, but it was also one of those nights where I struggled with engaging with the simple act of GMing, inevitable in any long term campaign (and certainly a factor in precipitating the ensuing breathing period). Nevertheless, Des had a great time, and during play we once again found ourselves sweating it over whether Herringdale would live to see the next Winter Phase...

With the coming of spring, Herringdale received word from Earl Robert that he should make ready to lead the county's knights to war in the summer. This was hardly a surprise to the Marshall; after receiving Gawaine's letter late the previous year, he had been steeling himself for just such a development. King Arthur and his court had already moved to Leicester, just south of the Duchy of Lindsey, the better to intercept Lot's invading army. As to the scandal of the missing "May babies", Arthur was reportedly quite upset about the news and had reportedly ordered Merlin to get to the bottom of the incident. Herringdale's jongleur troupe, visiting Du Plain hall in mid-May, brought rumors from the king's court that Arthur was suffering from troubled sleep and nightmares. Although speculation was rife as to the cause of the King's disturbed slumber, none knew the truth, save perhaps Merlin.

The troupe also brought word that Arthur was actively engaged in the search for a wife, and that his court was absolutely packed with young noblewomen and their eager fathers.

"Good luck with that!" thought Herringdale ruefully, thinking of his daughter Melerie, who was still living under the care of King Alain de Carlion, and her "foundling" child Loholt, actually the fruit of a night spent in the King's bed to no long-term gain for Herringdale save the arrival of a bastard grandson.

With the summer solstice came the call to arms. Herringdale assembled his company of 40 knights (and supporting footmen) at Sarum and then headed north. All across Logres, lords were summoning their troops to battle in a similar manner, all eventually flowing like steel rivers to the central point of assembly at Leicester.

Having arrived and established camp for his company outside the city, Herringdale presented himself at Arthur's court.

"Good Sir Herringdale!" said Arthur, welcoming the Marshall with arms flung wide. "I was just having a conversation with Sir Brastias and Duke Cynrain here about the merits of mercy in a chivalrous knight, and here you are as a living embodiment of the very points I was trying to make."

Herringdale smiled meekly, silently noting Cynrain's promotion to ducal status as he did so. [Cynrain is my stand-in for Duke Cador of Cornwall, incidentally. A fine demonstration of how you can slot your own NPCs into scripted roles as the campaign moves along.]

"What were we talking about before we got off on the chivalry tangent?" Arthur asked as he led Herringdale back to the spot where Brastias and Cynrain stood amidst a sea of courtiers.

"The army of King Lot, sire," said Cynrain with barely disguised exasperation. Obviously, it was hard to keep Arthur focused on pressing matters when there was Chivalry to be discussed!

"Ah yes," said Arthur, suddenly much more serious. "Word has it that he has allied 12 kings with him for this campaign, yes?"

"Indeed," said Brastias, his face set like stone. "Contingents from Sugales, Ireland, Malahaut, Garloth, Cornwall, and Norgales march under his banner in ten battalions. I am most worried about the forces of Norgales. The two half-giant brothers, Ryons and Nero, are fearsome foes who fight with the strength of ten men. The whole rebel host marches south from Cheshire into Cameliard. "

"Then we shall meet them on the way. The Virgin of Battles will grant us victory," said Arthur solemnly, genuflecting as he did so. Herringdale murmured an "amen" and departed to make ready for marching out the next day. On his way out of the hall, he spotted Merlin, lurking as always in the wings. To his surprise, Merlin also seemed to have spotted him and was heading his way!

"I have had word of the event that transpired in your hall last year," said the Archdruid. "Do not trouble yourself about the Lady of the Lake's death."

Herringdale fixed Merlin with a shocked expression, but Merlin merely nodded calmly and continued.

"Nineve was one of the worst women ever to bear the staff and cup of the craft. The sisterhood is better off without her. It is too bad for the court that the Knight with Two Swords killed her; we could use a man like him these days. But I predict that his deeds are not finished yet. Nor are yours. Prepare yourself well, for in two days' time the host of Nero will set on you before noon. Make yourself ready, for I will be departing from you now."

At that, Merlin swept from the hall. Although Herringdale followed quickly, he found no trace of the enchanter out in the bailey. Shrugging, he returned to his company's encampment and began seeing to preparations for the march.

Arthur's great host lumbered out from Leicester an hour before dawn the following morning. The great host followed the road out of Lambor and into the Bedegraine Forest, passing through Mancetter and overnighting at Carohaige. The following day, the army continued its march, passing imperceptibly into the Arroy Forest and camping south of Stafford at Castle Terrabil. Outriders brought word that Lot's army was very near, and all indications were that battle would be joined the next day. Arthur called for a council of war in the hall of Castle Terrabil.

"Some good news," Arthur began. "I have had word that King Pellinore is marching to join our ranks from Carlion. He is less than day's march south of here and his messenger says that he intends to march through the night to join us in time for battle."

There was an appreciative murmur from the assembled barons. Arthur then turned to the business of discussing deployment of companies and battalions. He had just assigned Herringdale to Duke Cynrain's wing on the left when the doors of the hall were thrown open.

Two knights who Herringdale had never seen before strode in, dragging a massive man clamped in irons behind them. The hulk was battered and bloodied but still seemed to have lots of fight left in him; he howled in indignation, cursing the knights and ordering them to release him at once.

One of the knights kneeled before Arthur.

"Your majesty," he said in a raised voice so as to be heard over the stream of invective, "on the eve of battle we have come bearing a gift for you..."

"HOW DARE YOU!" the man roared. Chains clanking, he rose to his feet. At full height, he towered over everyone else, standing nearly 10 feet tall. "YOU DARE TREAT KING RYONS IN SUCH A FASHION?" he snarled, blood flying from his mangled mouth. Arthur's face split into a wide grin. Perhaps the battle would not be so hard-fought as everyone feared?

The following morning dawned swathed in a chilling mist most uncharacteristic for mid-summer. As Arthur's army assembled on the plain outside Terrabil, the trees of the surrounding forest stood like ghostly sentinels, barely visible through the gray mist. Across the field, elements of Lot's army were likewise forming up.

Sitting atop Smuggy IV, fully armored and with sword in hand, Herringdale counted banners. Eight of Lot's ten reported battalions were on the field, but nowhere to be seen was Lot's grand war banner. Where was the King of Lothian?

As the fanfare sounded, Herringdale put such considerations out of his mind. It was time for battle, time to do what he was born and bred to do - to ride to glory and slaughter in defense of his land and his king!

Raising his sword and standing high in his stirrups, he signaled his company to move forward, following the great banner of Duke Cynrain. The trot became a canter which became a gallop, and soon the Salisbury company was colliding with a a unit of horsemen on mountain ponies, fearsome cavalry from the remote kingdom of Powys. They were no match for trained knights in full charge, though, and as the sun dawned blood red over the misty field they were put to flight by Herringdale and his men.

As the horsemen fled, a new unit advanced, strangely arrayed in magnificent garb. Clad in simple leather armor and wielding spear and shield, these warriors all also wore great cloaks woven of thousands of bird feathers. As Herringdale signaled a charge against this new foe, he felt his weapon arm weighted down as if by lead bars. These Sons of Bran, mystical warriors from the hills of Norgales, possessed some sort of strange magic, it seemed.

The Salisbury knights engaged the Sons of Bran for nearly an hour before both sides broke off, evenly matched. The feathered warriors melted away as mysteriously as they'd appeared, but Herringdale could at least say he had fought his own opponents to a standstill.

[This was an example of Pendragon's sometimes strange mechanics. The Sons of Bran imposed a -10 to their opponents' weapon skill with their magic. This gave Herringdale a Sword skill of 14 for the round - and Des preceded to roll a 14 for her attack! A supposed penalty therefore turned into a Crit, which was lucky since I also rolled a Crit that round.]

At this point, the Salisbury company was set upon by a horde of screaming Cambrian knifemen. The unarmored hillmen fell beneath sword and hoof, but not before taking out a few horses in the process. Somewhat depleted, the Salisbury company rallied to Duke Cynrain's banner and pressed deeper into the enemy ranks, coming up against a disciplined unit of men-at-arms, the garrison of the Gomeret. As the Gomeret forces kept the Salisbury company pinned in place, a unit of knights from the Out Isles wearing old-fashioned armor smashed into Herringdale's flank. Amazingly, the Salisbury knights not only held fast, but drove away the knights after an hour of savage fighting.

The knights' retreat was covered by a supporting unit of men-at-arms from the Isles, which the Salisbury forces also managed to eventually drive back. As the noon sun blazed down, Herringdale took stock. It seemed that the rebel army was pulling back in most spots, but quite nearby he could see a knot of determined resistance making a bloody stand. It was particularly noticeable owing to the fact that the unit was led by another giant of a man, Sir Nero, brother to King Ryons.

[My modified battle system uses Heraldry rolls to influence foe selection; a critted roll normally allows for a roll on the Book of Battle's Opportunity table. For this battle, I decided a critical Heraldry roll would bring Herringdale face to face with Sir Nero, and that if Nero hadn't shown up by the last round the final Heraldry roll would get a +10 modifier. The modifier was enough for Des to Crit in the final round, which was quite narratively appropriate, I thought.

Herringdale signaled a final charge into Nero's unit of knights, and as the brave Salisbury warriors crashed into the Norgales men, Herringdale made straight for the hulking form of Nero. Though he was on foot, his height was such that he was eye to eye with the mounted Herringdale. He wielded a massive two-handed mace that was covered in dripping gore, flecks of brain, and shards of shattered bone. Nero snarled at Herringdale from beneath his helm and hefted his mace. His eyes burned with impassioned fury - he was fighting for his brother and for the lost cause. He had nothing to lose and was all the more dangerous for it.

Herringdale attempted to dig deep and tap into his own source of inspiration, thinking of his High King and the cause he fought for...but as Nero advanced, Herringdale felt his conviction waver. Nervously, he gripped his sword and spurred his charger forward to battle, feeling a creeping sense of doom that this might be his last fight.

[A quick note on another house rule of mine: I don't generally apply penalties for failed Passion rolls if the Passion is under 11, and never do so in a battle situation. This is because I like to encourage players to roll for low Passions; with a high chance of failure and a fairly nasty penalty for a missed roll, players generally don't try the lower-ranked Passions on their sheets. Now, if a player insists on trying for a Passion that is low-ranked and isn't particularly well-suited, I'll happily apply the penalty... At any rate, Herringdale's Loyalty (Pendragon) passion is a mere 8, so when he missed the roll I didn't apply the Melancholy penalty. Fighting Nero without an Impassioned bonus would be penalty enough, I figured. Turns out I was right.]

The two great warriors clashed amid the general chaos and tumult of melee. They locked weapons, snarling (tied Criticals again!). Then began a deadly dance as Herringdale nimbly guided his horse in circles around Nero, taking swipes at the great hulking figure while dodging or barely deflecting his mighty swings. Time and again, Nero landed a blow that proved only glancing, turning Herringdale's shield into a ruined wreck and leaving his shield-arm numb from the shock, but otherwise he managed to avoid any major wounds.

[Seriously, Des lucked out with my damage rolls. Nero kept winning combats but coming up short on damage. Despite his 9d6 damage, time after time I was rolling in the upper teens or low twenties - enough to occasionally cause a few points of damage, but not enough to cause a Major Wound or even auto-knockdown! It also helped that I was rolling low on the d20, keeping Nero's combat rolls to normal successes rather than the dreaded 18d6 damage. The couple times he did crit, Herringdale did too, negating it.]

Finally, as Nero overextended himself from another glancing blow Herringdale saw his opening. Rising up in his saddle, he brought his sword down in a tremendous arc. The blade cut through Nero's mail coif and bit deep into his elephantine neck. As Herringdale pulled his sword free, a great gout of blood from Nero's jugular arced forth, glimmering in the noonday sun. With enough force to shake the ground, the brother of King Ryons fell to the earth and breathed his last, a muttered curse caught on his lips.

[Des finally managed to score a Crit on a round that Nero didn't and then proceded to roll almost max damage on 10d6 - I think it was in the low 50s. That was the end of Nero, and the end of one of the most nail-biting combats of the whole campaign. Both of us knew that nearly every round brought the very real possibility of Herringdale buying the farm, something that hasn't really been the case since very early on.]

Blood thundering in his ears, Herringdale looked around. Nearly the whole of the melee around him had come to a halt during his epic battle, both sides standing to watch. As Nero's blood flowed into the already-sodden ground, his followers threw down their arms and surrendered or else took flight in terror. Herringdale took his helmet off and mopped his sweating brow, completely exhausted. His shield was in ruins, his arms felt like dead fish, and he was bleeding from multiple small wounds incurred over the course of the morning in addition to the wounds he had sustained in his fight with Nero.

"Come Baldrick, the battle is won. Let us retire," he said to his loyal squire. But then a great shout of alarm rose up from many in Arthur's exhausted host. Over the crest of the hill, as the last of the Norgales and Malahaut forces fled away, the fresh army of King Lot came marching.

"Form up! Form up! We must fight!" came the cry.

Herringdale's shoulders slumped. He wasn't sure if he could go on fighting, but the sight of knights wounded earlier in the day mounting up and rejoining the ranks inspired him to stick with the fight as well. A great blaring of trumpets heralded another source of inspiration: King Pellinore and his company was riding onto the field!

Figuring he could do worse than attaching his depleted, battered company to the flag of a great warrior and his fresh battalion, Herringdale rallied to Pellinore's banner as Lot's forces drew close. Before he knew it, he was once again among the swirl of melee. Straight off the bat, he found himself fighting one of Lot's elite units, a force from Strangorre known as The Rewarded Men. Herringdale rewarded them with a Crit, splitting the skull of a lieutenant as Pellinore's battalion surged forward.

"LOT! I AM COMING FOR YOU!" Pellinore's great battle cry could be heard clearly over the whinnying of horses, clash of steel, and screams of the wounded. Swept along, Herringdale next engaged with knights from Lothian, part of Lot's bodyguard. Eventually winning the day, Herringdale led his company in the wake of Pellinore as the king made for Lot's unit.

Herringdale now found himself in a reversed role from that morning's duel with Sir Nero. He was now one of the observers who stood transfixed, watching two great warriors duke it out on the field. The fight between Lot and Pellinore was even more epic than the duel between Herringdale and Nero. Great gobbets of blood and links of mail were strewn about the field, such was the ferocity of the blows each landed on the other. Finally, Pellinore got the upper hand and split Lot's bald pate down to his palette. Again, as with Nero, the effect on Lot's followers was immediate, with many surrendering on the spot or else taking flight.

Now victorious, Arthur's army joyously set to pursuit of the shattered rebel forces. Herringdale, exhausted, opted not to ride in pursuit. He retired to the rear so Baldrick could dress his wounds. Feeling a bit better, he rode back out onto the blood-soaked field. There he found Arthur in quiet contemplation, looking down at Lot's shattered body. The High King looked up as Herringdale approached and dismounted. Arthur looked sadder and more solemn than Herringdale had ever seen him. There was much less of the boy in this king.

"Let us pray that this is the last of these forbidding conflicts. Certainly the Virgin of Battles has been with us," said Arthur. As he said this, Herringdale noticed a painted icon of the Virgin Mary on the inside of Arthur's shield. Other knights and lords were also gathering around their High King. Noticing this, Arthur said in a clear, ringing voice, "But for the sake of the commons, our farms, and especially our wives, let us drink to this being the end of the fighting!"

A great cheer went up from the assembly as Arthur mounted his charger, brandishing Excalibur in the waning afternoon light.

Wives and farms. It was time to return home, Herringdale thought to himself. The next day, as Arthur prepared to decamp with his court to nearby Stafford to enjoy the hospitality of King Leodegrance, Herringdale began to pack up to return to Du Plain Castle. A few days later, as he began the march at the head of the Salisbury company on the journey south, he saw a gang of workmen erecting a tomb not far from Castle Terrabil. Calling a halt, he sought out the foreman in charge of the project.

"Orders o' the king," said the foreman, unfurling a roll of parchment depicting plans for an elaborate tomb, the burial site Lot and for the 11 great men who fought and died with him. Herringdale cast his eyes over the plans; the tomb would eventually bear a bas relief depicting 13 figures, all gilt with gold. A young King Arthur would be depicted receiving the homage and surrender of the 12 kings defeated at Terrabil. Each king would hold an ever-burning candle (courtesy of Merlin, said the foreman). Herringdale noted that although 11 of the kings were in poses of humble submission, Lot was to be sculpted, larger than the others, standing with his eyes raised defiantly to Arthur.

Thanking the foreman, Herringdale signaled the advance, resuming his march back to Salisbury. There were still many miles to go before he could rest his old bones and fresh wounds.
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