Wednesday, July 27, 2011

[Solo GPC] 519: Enter Meleri

After far too long of a hiatus, Pendragon is kicking back up into high gear around these parts. This past Sunday Des ran the first session of her Pendragon campaign for the Meetup group. Including myself, we had five players. We've got two others who have expressed interest but couldn't make it that day due to scheduling conflicts and even an eighth(!) player on a waiting list. For a supposedly obscure RPG, Pendragon sure is bringing all the gamers to the yard, as it were.

(And yes, it was awesome to be on the player's side of the Pendragon experience again.)

During the preceding week prior to the Sunday session, we managed to get the Solo GPC campaign up and running as well. Following the death of Sir Herringdale, this session was to be the beginning of a new chapter tracing the exploits of Des's next character, Lady Meleri, Herringdale's black sheep daughter and heir to Broughton Manor. I took the opportunity to reassess and re-calibrate some of the rules I'd been using since we started the campaign in January of 2010. As I wrote way back then, we started with all core and optional rules in effect and more than a few house rules culled from Pendragon websites and message boards. I've since learned that in a solo game, simpler rules are often better. We'd already abandoned the excellent system presented in The Book of Battle for a more streamlined system. Now, as I prepared for the next adventure, I also made the decision to switch to the simpler Narrative economic system presented in The Book of the Manor; trying to balance the books in-game wasn't adding any fun to this particular campaign experience - we get enough of that in our real lives! I also adopted these excellent Yearly Event and Kin Event tables to flesh out the Winter Phase a bit more. Finally, I made lots of notes on the direction of the campaign in years to come, including themes I'd like to explore and ideas for allies and foes to toss at Meleri.

With all that prep done, I somewhat paradoxically prepared a simple adventure for this year. This was both because it had been a while since we'd played and because a lady-centered campaign was going to be such a dramatic switch I wanted to allow both of us to get a feel for it through a simple, rather straightforward adventure. Sort of like the introductory scenario in the core book taking nascent knights through the basics of jousting and opposed combat rolls, this would take us through the basics of how Meleri's adventures would play out in court and in the wild.

The year 519 had arrived with most of Salisbury's nobles and ladies staying as guests at Arthur's court in London. Salisbury and Silchester had been ravaged by the Saxon hordes prior to Badon Hill and there was much rebuilding to be done come the spring. The High King was up to his crown jewels in administrative headaches; with so many old knights killed at Badon, and so many young knights having distinguished themselves in the battle, there were innumerable posts to fill, honors to be conferred, and marriages to be arranged - as a means of pacifying the Saxon kingdoms, Arthur was granting the lands and wives of slain thegns to eager young knights. There were also plenty of now-vacated seats on the Round Table to be filled. Among those who joined that order's august ranks were Sagremor le Desirous and Dodinas le Sauvage, as well as the Brown Knight of the Wilds. Shockingly, the White Knight (who still refused to give his real name) declined a seat at the Table when offered one!

"He said, 'The Holy Grail is my lady,'" Lady Gwiona told Meleri as they watched the snow come down on the courtyard of the White Tower. "Can you imagine?"

Meleri stayed silent, watching Gwiona's young daughter Orlande play among the tapestries. Gwiona's husband, that old warhorse Sir Jaradans, had recently been named Marshall of Salisbury by Earl Robert, taking the place of her deceased father. The Earl had also taken possession of Du Plain Castle and appointed Sir Magloas, son of Sir Lycus, also killed at Badon, as castellan. Meleri was still waiting on word of her own fate and that of her siblings.

Two days before Yule she received her answer. Summoned by Sir Kay, she appeared before King Arthur, who sat in his throne with crown and scepter, draped in a mantle of ermine. If he remembered their youthful tryst some eight years previous, he showed no sign of it in his patrician facade.

"Lady Meleri of Broughton, daughter of the late Marshall Herringdale of Du Plain," Arthur said. "In recognition of your father's heroism and service to the crown, I hereby grant you an annuity of seven libra. Furthermore, I grant you Broughton Manor and its surrounds in perpetuity."

It was a generous bequest and Meleri curtsied deeply before departing. As she made her way from the hall, Earl Robert approached her.

"That was a fine gift and well deserved," he said courteously. But Meleri knew that as an unmarried lady, her ultimate fate was in the hands of the Earl; she waited for the other shoe to drop. "I trust you will look to the stewardship of Broughton as you have in the past," the Earl continued.

"What of the children?" Meleri asked.

"Your own issue may live with you, naturally," said Robert. "As for the others, they shall come and reside at my court until such time as they are ready to serve at the courts of my vassals."

It was a fair deal - Meleri knew Robert could have ordered her to marry anyone he chose. That he was allowing her autonomy instead was perhaps a token of how largely her father's legacy loomed. Or perhaps, as a woman with two bastard children by two fathers, she was simply too much of a liability to marry. This suited her fine - exile in Broughton was preferable to attending to boring court politics at Sarum.

With her future secured, Meleri was able to relax and enjoy the rest of the season at Arthur's court. Unlike Sarum, the High King's court was a buzzing hive of marvelous sights and juicy intrigue. In addition to the many knights and ladies of Logres who were in attendance, there was a great multitude of foreign knights present. They were knights of the de Ganis clan, descendants of the legendary King Lancelot and subjects of Kings Bans and Bors.

Last year, while Arthur and his army was engaged in the fight of its life against the Saxons, King Claudas of France had treacherously broken his peace treaty and invaded Aquitaine, home of the de Ganis. Although Arthur had pledged to come to the aid of Bans and Bors in return for their military assistance during his wars of unification, he had been unable to make good on his promise. Word around court was that Arthur felt awful about this and had extended an offer to host any de Ganis refugees who would flee the persecutions of Claudas.

Many knights had taken the Pendragon up on his offer, and the court was now abuzz with chatter about these strange foreign knights.

"Those poor fellows from Ganis!" exclaimed Countess Katherine one afternoon as she and the ladies of Salisbury sat with their needlepoint in the south tower, trying to catch some feeble winter sunlight through the mullioned windows. "Their kings are dead and their wives and children have disappeared."

"Poor fellows, indeed," said Gwiona, although with a wry smile on her face. "They can stay at my place for a while if they need to." Everyone laughed. "Bad luck or not, have you ever seen such sweet-talking men? And they play harp and sing like they teamed it from birth."

Meleri had to agree - these Aquitanian knights were clearly cut from a different cloth, making even the courtly young dandies of Logres like Sir Tor look like country bumpkins. She watched silently as Countess Katherine prattled on. She did not like the Earl's wife. The feeling seemed mutual; Katherine rarely had a word for Meleri, who dressed plainly but was still counted one of the most beautiful women in the county. Katherine, on the other hand, was plain-looking and one of the worst gossips she had ever met. Obviously insecure about her looks, she draped herself in extravagant fabrics, jewels, and precious metals. What her excesses were costing the Earl at a time of recovery and rebuilding Meleri did not like to think.

Meleri's dark thoughts had seemingly permeated the room, as an uncomfortable silence now descended on the group. Presently, Gwiona piped up: "I hear King Arthur is planning on making a new city of his own. The site is not yet selected."

Hardly able to stand this line of conversation, Meleri rose, curtsied to Countess Katherine, and excused herself to go check on her children, whom she had left in the care of a nurse. As she descended the tower stairs, she mumbled an invocation to the Goddess, asking that the thaw come as soon as possible that she might depart London and return to her home.

Eventually, spring did arrive and plans were made to depart the High King's court. A grand Easter feast marked the end of winter. Some lords and ladies planned to stay on at court a while longer, but, although the back roads were still a bit muddy, Meleri had already made plans to return to Broughton immediately. Sir Magloas had volunteered to escort her on his way to his new post at Du Plain.

The next day, an unseasonably warm one, as Meleri was mounting her palfrey in the courtyard she saw Sir Magloas leading his horse from the stables in the company of one of the de Ganis knights and his two squires. The two knights approached her.

"My lady," said Magloas, "may I present Sir Heraus de Ganis."

Sir Heraus flourished a deep bow. "Your servant," he said suavely.

Meleri nodded, trying to suppress a smile at the foreign knight's manners.

"At Earl Robert's bequest, Sir Heraus and his men will be staying with me at Du Plain," said Sir Magloas, "and will be riding with us on the journey."

The trio rode out, squires and spare horses in tow, making their way along the King's Road up the Thames Valley. They overnighted at Windsor Castle, then proceeded into Silchester the next day. As they made their way across the county, they passed manors and villages swarming with activity; the local peasantry was industriously rebuilding or repairing damaged buildings and setting about reseeding the fields that had been burned the year before.

At Levcomagus, Meleri announced her intention to continue west - Sir Magloas was due to turn south to Winchester, then over to Du Plain.

"My lady," said Sir Heraus, smoothing his thin mustache, "it is not safe for a woman to travel unescorted. Allow me to ride with you to your manor. I will then proceed on to Du Plain, which lies not far from your lands as I understand it."

Meleri assented to this request and after overnighting at Levcomagus they bade farewell to Sir Magloas and took the west road into the Chute Forest. They had passed into the lightly wooded forest when, as noon approached, they came upon a wooden bridge spanning a running river, cold with winter runoff.

On the far side of the bridge sat a silk tent, stitched in alternating stripes of shocking pink and bright green. Within the tent was a table and two chairs; in one of the chairs sat an ugly little dwarf idly toying with a chess piece from the board on the table. Outside the tent, a knight was brushing his horse, which bore hair of slightly greenish hue. The knight wore quartered livery to match the colors of the tent. Nearby, a silver helm rested near a rack of lances.

As Meleri's party approached, the dwarf hopped to his feet and came out onto the bridge, raising a stubby brown hand to signal a halt.

"My lord the Gallant of Sauvage has made an oath to guard this crossing against all who would pass. His toll is a joust for love, best of three passes."

Meleri looked at Sir Heraus, who was exchanging nervous glances with his two squires. She saw him swallow hard, clearly unnerved by the strange scene. [Despite Heraus's better-than-average Valorous score, he managed to fail the roll!]

"Perhaps we should double back and follow Sir Magloas?" Heraus suggested. Meleri gave the knight a disdainful sniff and flicked her horse's reins, riding forward.

"Dwarf," she said, "is there no other way we might allowed to pass?"

The Gallant, who had been watching these proceedings with a wry smile on his handsome face, answered for the dwarf.

"My friend here is a great fan of the chess," he said, nodding to the dwarf. "He has not been beaten in ten score games. He craves a worthy opponent."

"I shall play your game, then," said Meleri although she hadn't played chess since her days as a lady-in-waiting at Morgan's court.

Meleri crossed the bridge and daintily took a seat at the chess table beneath the gaudy tent. Heraus, his squires, and the Gallant stood a distance away, watching with interest. The dwarf took his seat opposite Meleri and the game began. As they played, the dwarf engaged Meleri in a discussion about the rules of heraldry. Although the conversation was illuminating, Meleri kept her focus on the game. Charged with a desire to succeed where her knightly escort had balked [and succeeding in an Honor passion roll], she played the best game of chess of her life and just barely managed to defeat the dwarf.

As she moved her rook into position and announced "check and mate" the Gallant burst into applause. The dwarf hurled himself off his chair and bowed so low his knobbly nose swept the grass.

"My lady," he said in his croaking voice, "I gave an oath many years ago to serve faithfully the one who could best me at my game. You are the first to have done so, and I am at your service from now on."

Meleri was surprised but pleased at this development. "Er, very well," she said. "Arise, dwarf."

The Gallant approached and bowed as well. "Well played, good lady," he said, a twinkle in his eye. Meleri flushed a bit under his intense, otherworldly gaze. She quickly mounted her horse and watched as the dwarf retrieved a donkey and took his seat on its back.

They rode on, leaving the Gallant at his post by the river. They overnighted at Grately Manor despite the fact half the roof was still open to the skies (the locals having only just managed to thatch the other half in the last week) then made for Broughton the next day, figuring to arrive by dusk. As they rode through the vale of Buck Creek, however, Meleri could tell something was wrong. Unlike the lands in Silchester and Grately Manor, the lands around Broughton were not abuzz with activity. Fields still lay in ashes and no lights burned in the ruined village cottages. The manor house clearly lay in burnt ruins, just the way it had been left two years ago after invading Saxons had taken it and Meleri had barely escaped with her life. For a distance of some yards around the house Meleri could see the land had a gray, ashen aspect like that of a rotted fruit.

As she rode the trail towards the manor house, Meleri saw several grubby peasants emerge from the nearby woods. She called a halt and waited for them to approach. As they recognized Meleri's flaming hair, the peasants broke into a run. Meleri could see tears of joy streaming down their faces and as they drew near they threw themselves down before her startled horse.

"My lady! You have returned!" they cried.

"What goes on here?" Meleri demanded. "Why does the village and manor still lie in ruins?"

"A fell beast has taken residence in the hall," the peasants whispered, their voices choked with fear. "It poisons the land and attacks those who stray too near. We have been living in the woods, first hiding from the Saxons, then from the evil that now infests your manor, m'lady."

"An evil beast, you say?" said Sir Heraus, clearly anxious to redeem himself after his cowardice at the river crossing. "With your permission, my lady, I will ride forth and slay the foul creature."

Meleri nodded and Heraus spurred his horse forward. [At this point, I handed Des Heraus's sheet; the plan is that whenever there's a fight to be had, Des can run the NPC knight or knights who are fighting on Meleri's behalf.] The de Ganis knight approached the manor in the fading light. At his approach, a flock of sparrows took wing, startled by the sound of his jangling armor and the clop of his horse's hooves. The birds flew directly over the ruined manor and Heraus saw a jet of clear liquid shoot up into the sky from within. The spray hit one of the birds, who gave a piteous cry and dropped from the sky like a stone, trailing...was it smoke?

Heraus swallowed hard again, reining his horse in. He looked at the burned ruins of the manor, then looked back at Meleri and the peasants watching expectantly - and brought his horse 'round, riding back to Meleri with his head hung low. [Heraus missed his Valorous roll again - in fact, this time he fumbled! So much for the valiant de Ganis knights...]

Meleri felt nothing but contempt for her escort. She sat atop her horse, contemplating the ruined manor, wondering if the lands so recently granted her were now worthless.

"My lady," rumbled the voice of the dwarf. "My lord knows the secrets of all things. Perhaps he might tell you the secret of defeating this beast."

Seeing no better option, Meleri agreed to follow the dwarf to "my master's court" in the Sauvage Forest. She overnighted in one of the few intact cottages in the village, then set off first thing the next morning, Sir Heraus and his squires still in tow but riding well back, shoulders drooping under the weight of their collective shame.

The ride to the Forest Sauvage took a week as the dwarf led Meleri north through Marlborough, Clarence, and Wuerensis. At Lambor Castle, the party turned east and plunged into the Forest Sauvage. Camping under the trees that night, several magpies alighted on nearby branches. The birds cawed and sang, twittering and leaping from branch to branch. Heraus was clearly annoyed, but Meleri watched with interest. Suddenly all the flock but one took wing, flying deeper into the forest. The bird that remained was the largest of the flock and he watched Meleri with cold black eyes. She had the distinct impression she was being spied on.

Crumbling up some of her bread, she held her hand out and made a chirruping noise. The bird alighted and landed on her wrist and began eating the crumbs. When it was done it too took wing and flew east into the woods.

The next day, the dwarf led Meleri and company along a winding forest track. Many were the times Meleri would have lost the trail had it not been for the dwarf leading her. After some hours, they came to a massive castle constructed entirely of red marble. The dwarf told Meleri to proceed into the castle by herself. With a nervous glance back, she left Heraus and his squires outside with the dwarf and crossed beneath a massive gatehouse that contained a giant portcullis, green with age. Dismounting her horse in the courtyard, she headed up into the red keep.

Within was a massive hall to rival that of Sarum Castle or the White Tower in London. It was completely bare save for a plain wooden throne at the far end. Meleri entered the hall and looked around and suddenly became aware of another person in the hall. It was a lady dressed in an extravagant but tastefully tailored gown. Her visage was beautiful but also somewhat disturbing.

"Why do come hence to the Castle Sauvage?" the lady asked in a voice as cold as ice.

Meleri attempted a curtsy but found her legs suddenly turned to rubber, her mouth dry, her brain buzzing. "I- I-," she stammered.

The magpie from the night before flew in through the open doors of the hall and alighted on the lady's shoulder. It twittered softly in her ear. The lady nodded and the magpie flew off.

"Very well," said the lady, looking harsh and skeptical. "Wait here."

Not entirely sure what she was waiting for and whether it would be a boon or a bane, Meleri stood nervously, alone in the hall, for some time. At last, a small man entered the hall to a fanfare of invisible trumpets. He was stooped and hunchbacked, his nose long and twisted, his hair an unnatural flaming orange color. Despite his freakish appearance, he was draped in silks and furs of the finest quality.

"I understand my dwarf has brought you hence with a request," said the King of Sauvage as he sat himself upon his throne.

"Yes, your majesty," said Meleri with a curtsy, her manners finally coming back to her. "A terrible beast haunts my manor house and none know how to be rid of it."

She described what had happened when she arrived at Broughton, the King listening closely.

Art by Crissy Gottberg
"The creature you describe is a basilisk, the king of serpents," said the King at last. "It is indeed a terrible foe, but it has one great weakness: the common weasel, which will run down its throat and eat its heart. Capture a weasel and set it loose on the basilisk and it will trouble you no more."

Meleri curtsied again and thanked the King profusely. When the King said no more, Meleri turned and left. The journey back to Broughton passed without further incident. Arriving back at the manor, Meleri had one of her peasants catch a weasel in the woods. Sir Heraus bore the bagged creature forward, unleashing it a dozen yards from the burnt ruins. The weasel sniffed the air, then streaked forward, weaving through charred stonework and cracked timbers.

Silence fell. Then a great reptilian cry rose up from the ruins, a chilling, unearthly sound that Meleri would never forget. A minute later, the weasel reappeared, perching on a large stone block, daintily cleaning blood off its fur. Meleri rode forward and with Sir Heraus finally entered the ruins of the manor. The air hung thick with an acidic tang that obliged them to cover their mouths and made their eyes water. But they could see the carcass of the basilisk laid out in the old great hall. It was as long as four horses standing nose to tail, and striped in black and white horizontal lines. Its head was wreathed with a strange plume of feathers and on its head was a gold crown.

Heraus plucked up the crown with the tip of his lance and presented it to Meleri. Over the next day, the carcass of the basilisk was removed by the local peasantry and a set of block and tackle and dumped in the Buck. As the dead basilisk floated away, Meleri could see dead fish floating to the surface around it; even in death, the basilisk was poison.

"Oops," she murmured, wondering how much damage the creature would do on its way to the sea.

Sir Heraus returned to Du Plain castle and the peasants were soon happily back at work, rebuilding the village and sowing the fields as spring rains began to fall, cleansing the taint of the basilisk from the land. Meleri dispatched her dwarf servant, who - after refusing to divulge his true name - she had dubbed Higgins, to take a token of her appreciation back to the Sauvage King: a lock of her auburn hair. Spring turned to summer and Broughton had a roof again. As autumn came in, the harvest was gathered up; although it was meager, there weren't as many mouths to feed as before the coming of the Saxons, so there was no shortage this year.

Meleri was beginning to contemplate how she was going to spend her winter when an unexpected guest arrived. It was the Gallant of Sauvage and he bore a message from his liege, the King of Sauvage.

"My lord was well touched by your kindly gift," he informed Meleri. "He has requested that I come to retrieve you that you may stay as a guest at his table over the winter."

This development suited Meleri just fine and, after leaving instructions with the local reeve for the administration of the lands over the cold months, she departed at once in the company of the Gallant.

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