Friday, January 27, 2012

[Solo GPC] 526: A Squire's Life

For this first installment in the new phase of the campaign, I decided to cheat a little bit. There's a little introductory scenario that comes in the back of the Pendragon core rulebook; I think everyone who's played Pendragon is familiar with it. I've run it before (although not for Des) and she's run it for me (twice, in fact!). Yet, because the GPC starts out (way back in 485) with a different intro scenario, the adventure had so far not featured in this particular campaign. I felt this was a shame, as it's such an iconic Pendragon experience. I asked Des if she'd mind playing through the adventure since she'd only experienced it from a GM's perspective. She had no problem with this, and so we faded in on the Vale of the White Horse on a breezy early summer morn...

The arms of Baron Uffington
With the coming of the thaw, Arthur had summoned his knights to Portchester to assemble for the coming invasion. Sir Lamorak and a band of compatriots had seized Barfleur in a daring raid the year before, opening up a bridgehead for the main force to land. Nearly every able-bodied knight in the realm had answered Arthur's summons, anxious for glory and conquest. This included the lord of the Vale, Sir Malcolum, Baron of Uffington and father of Salisbury's Countess Katherine. He had departed a month ago, taking his elder squire with him. Loholt, newly squired, was left behind in the care of Sir Asser, called the Knight of the Old Ways. Also in residence at the manor was the page Gondrins, son of Earl Robert and Countess Katherine.

Gondrins, despite his youth, had a tendency to throw his privilege around and Loholt found it much easier to avoid the lad than deal with his irritating personality. He preferred to spend his days, after completing his morning training and afternoon chores, out riding the sweeping plains of the Vale on his trusty charger, White Star. The Knight of the Old Ways largely left him to it, sometimes even joining him on a ride; his approach to training was unorthodox but effective.

It was on one such afternoon ride with Sir Asser (and his hound Bucephalus) in tow that the old knight suggested a trip out to Uffington Castle. Despite its grand name, the "castle" was little more than an ancient man-made mound surrounded by a ring of ramparts and ditches. However, the wide flat top of the mound, several acres across, made for ideal training grounds. It was here that Loholt practiced his tilting; Sir Asser had erected two tilting targets on the windswept fort and many a day had been spent aiming a lance at the wooden foes.

Loholt readily agreed to the old knight's challenge and they galloped off, the chalky outline of the Vale's eponymous horse looking down on them from the nearby heights.

"Right," said Asser as they trotted up onto the summit of the Castle's mound. "Let's see you take a few passes at the target."

He indicated a wooden plate attached to a long post. The plate bore many dents from previous passes, and Loholt added a few more as he warmed up, galloping past the target and striking it with his lance. He recalled how, just a couple years ago, he could barely manage the task on foot with a half-size lance - striking a target precisely with a wobbling 10-foot spear took great skill and practice, even without doing it from the back of a trotting steed.

Reigning White Star about, Loholt nodded to Sir Asser, who was reclining on the grass, playing lazily with Bucephalus.

"Go at it, then," said Asser, his weathered face cracking into a grin.

Loholt turned his steed to face the other target, the quintain. This devilish device worked like the simpler wooden target but with a twist. Mounted on a swivel with the target on one side, from the other side hung a small stone on a rope, positioned perfectly to swing around and whack a passing squire upside the head if he didn't hit the target at the perfect speed and angle. This infernal machine always gave Loholt trouble, and he was determined to best it no matter how many hits to the skull he had to take in the process.

Feeling like today was his lucky day, he squared himself up with the quintain and put spurs to horse. White Star, rearing slightly, took off, hurtling Loholt and his bouncing lance towards the target. Loholt gritted his teeth, felt the lance connect, and then - WHAM! The stone pummeled him across the neck. The force of the blow knocked him off his horse and he landed hard on the packed earth. He could hear Sir Asser laughing heartily over the whipping wind.

"It's alright lad, you'll best it one day," said Asser, picking himself up and dusting leaves of dead grass off his tunic and hose. "That wasn't too bad, truth be told. Just a glancing blow this time, right?"

Ruefully rubbing his sore neck, Loholt nodded and tried to smile.

"Ah, don't feel so bad. Come, let's race back to the mansion!" With that, Sir Asser hopped up on his horse, Bucephalus barking excitedly at his feet.

A race! Just the thing to clear Loholt's head! Excitedly, he jumped into his saddle as well - and promptly fell off the other side. Landing hard again, he laid in the grass, staring up at wispy clouds blowing across the milky sky. Asser's laughter rang out once again.

"Oh son, perhaps the rock hit you harder than it seemed! Still, best be back on your horse because I'm off!" And with that the old knight galloped away down the castle's ramp. Quickly, Loholt leapt back to his feet and remounted White Star. "Go!" he commanded, and the charger was off, swift as the wind.

Sir Asser had a decent head start, but Loholt was hot on his tail. Slowly the distance began to close. Loholt could make out Bucephalus, keeping pace with the galloping horse and barking excitedly. Suddenly, the dog dodged between the horse's galloping hooves, causing the steed to pull up sharply. Sir Asser went flying with a bevy of curses, landing in a dusty heap on the open plain. Loholt quickly caught up; he could've kept going and won the race, but he decided to check on the old knight instead.

He found Sir Asser, groaning and winded, slowly picking himself up, unleashing a string of curses vile enough to strip the paint off the frescoes of Salisbury Cathedral. Bucephalus sat nearby, wagging his tail and panting happily. Sir Asser chucked a rock at the dog, but it went well wide of the mark.

"Well, come on then - is this a race or not?" Asser asked as he remounted his horse. And with that they were back to galloping through the vale, passing over pasture and field, leaping stone walls and weaving through orchards, until at last the stone edifice of Uffington manor hove into view. Asser, the more experienced horseman, had gradually pulled ahead of Loholt and by the time the young squire thundered through the gates of the manor's courtyard the old knight was down off his charger and leading it to the water trough.

"Well run," said Asser as Loholt brought White Star over for a drink. It was a rare compliment and took some of the sting out of the loss. "Now go and see if Gondrins needs any help in the kitchens."

Loholt slouched off to the scullery, sulking.

As evening closed in and Loholt was finishing his supper of bread and cheese, a group of peasants came into the great hall to petition Sir Asser for help.

"Please, m'lord. It's a bear in the west acres, great and terrible! It's taken to eating man-flesh!"

"What? Bollocks. I've never heard of such a beast," said Sir Asser, visibly annoyed.

"We speak the truth, sir," said another peasant, nervously crushing his cap in his weathered hands. "We're afeared to venture into the fields. It dragged off old Tom t'other day when he was out in the far pasture."

The other peasants hung their heads in sadness, but Sir Asser merely smirked. "Looking for an excuse to get out of your tallage work, eh? Very well. I'm too old to go chasing after bears, but I'll send young Loholt here to look into the matter of this supposed man-eater."

Loholt's head jerked up, his mouth half full of bread. "Me?" he asked thickly.

"Faringdon is a half-day's ride from here," said Sir Asser, ignoring the squire's surprise. "Do you wish to ride out now or wait til morning?"

"Morning, I think," said Loholt, eyeing the purple sky through the window of the hall.

"Very well," said Sir Asser. "Set out at first light. Wear your hunting leathers in case you run into any trouble. Once you arrive in Faringdon, seek out the local priest. It's still Old Garr, isn't that right?" The peasants nodded.

So the next morning Loholt set off for the west acres, down in the Thames River valley. He rode under threatening grey clouds scudding across a brilliantly blue sky and, around noon, came to the village of Faringdon. A church, the only stone structure in the town, stood at its center. Leaving his two horses outside, he headed in. There he found a fat old priest, stretched out on a bench near the alter, eating sweet meats and sucking his fingers with great relish.

"Hello?" said Loholt tentatively.

"Eh? Who are you?" The priest got laboriously to his feet and plastered his last wisps of hair to his scalp with greasy fingers.

"I am Loholt, sent by Sir Asser at the behest of - "

"Ah yes. Yes, yes. A squire by the look of you. That old coot Asser must not have thought much of our petition."

"No, I dare say he didn't," agreed Loholt. "But I'm here to do what I can. Are you Old Garr?"

"That's what they call me," muttered the priest. "Very well, I suppose you'll have to do. Give me a moment to fetch my ass and we'll see if we can't find this beast."

"What? Now?" Loholt asked, a little alarmed.

"You'd prefer to wait til All Saint's Day?" Old Garr asked with a croaky laugh. "Yes, now! What did you come all the way out here for?"

Loholt waited for Old Garr outside the church, trying to ignore a gaggle of children standing nearby and pulling faces at him. Presently the priest appeared, mounted on the back of a mule. At his side strode a young boy with three hounds straining at their leashes, pulling him along.

"I know a bit of the ways of the creatures of the forest," said Garr, a gleam in his eye. "I can help you pick up the spoor."

The group set out along a track leading out of Faringdon. It wound through fields, then pastures, and finally came to wild woods that grew along the path of the Thames, girding the river in a wide belt of green. They entered the woods and left the trail, picking their way carefully through tall elms, the dogs sniffing eagerly among the thick, loamy mulch of the forest floor.

The day began to grow long; twice, the trail was picked up then lost again, first thanks to a stream, then due to thick undergrowth preventing good progress. Finally, just as it was beginning to grow dark, Loholt spotted something; motioning to Old Garr, he pointed it out.

"That's it! And fresh, too. The beast can't be far away - release the hounds!"

The dogs took off in a cacophony of baying, Loholt and White Star hot on their heels. He found the bear, rearing up on hind legs, the dogs snapping and barking ferociously. It was black as midnight and nearly as tall as he, mounted though he was. With a yell to match the bear's angry bellows, he charged forward, driving his spear into the beast's chest. Such was the force of the blow that the bear was sent tumbling backwards, ass over claws. The dogs rushed in at once and began to harry it and it quickly regained its footing and scooted away into the woods.

"Go, White Star!" Loholt leapt his horse over a fallen log and chased after his quarry, the dogs coursing around him. Against the roots of a great oak tree, the bear pulled up short and reared again. Loholt charged in once more, his spear blade flashing. He connected twice, but neither was a telling blow, the sharpness of the blade being turned aside by the thick hide of the bear. Then it happened: with a great roar and a flash of tooth and claw, the bear lurched into Loholt. He felt his leather armor torn asunder, felt himself falling from the saddle, heard the barking of the dogs and the roar of the bear...

...Loholt's eyes fluttered open. He was lying on his back, but he wasn't in the woods anymore. Golden sunlight was streaming in through three arched windows and wooden beams overhead supported a peaked roof. Looking around, he realized he was lying on a cot in the corner of the Faringdon church. His mouth was swollen with thirst and his whole body ached; a dull flame of pain traced across his chest with the slightest movement.

Then a door opened and Sir Asser himself entered the church. He actually smiled when he saw Loholt, revealing a row of crooked teeth. "Boy!" he exclaimed.

"What happened?" Loholt croaked. Sir Asser did not answer right away but proceeded over to the altar and poured a goblet-full of the Eucharist wine, then brought it over to Loholt. "Drink," he commanded.

As the watered wine slaked Loholt's thirst, he listened to Sir Asser's tale. Apparently the squire had been unconscious for a week, left at death's door by the bear's attack - only his hunting leathers had prevented his untimely demise. [The bear scored a Critical and knocked Loholt down to a single Hit Point!] The dogs had chased the bear away and Old Garr, who had been doing his best to keep up, found Loholt shortly after that. He took the squire back to town, bound his wounds, and sent word to Uffington. Sir Asser had come at once; the following day, they had ventured back into the woods and killed the bear, which had been severely weakened by Loholt's spear blows.

"I'm sorry I sent you, lad," said Asser, his wrinkled face creased all the moreso with worry. "I'm just not the man I used to be. I wanted to stay here until you got better, but now I must return to Uffington to see to the manor's affairs. You are to remain here until you've healed enough for travel. Do you understand?"

Loholt nodded, too weak to speak.

It took three months before Loholt felt back to full health. In that time he got to know Old Garr well. Like most village priests, he was illiterate, having only memorized relevant passages in the Bible to "read" at sermons. He loved hunting and gossip, however, and he kept Loholt well entertained with tales of past hunts, both successful and disastrous, as well as rumors from the war overseas.

"Arthur's army set out two months ago, in July," Garr reported. "The only news I've gotten has come from peddlers and mercenaries who have been to the Continent. Some say that Lamorak and his men conquered half of France before Arthur got there. Others tell me that our army is trapped in Barfleur, under siege by King Clovis. Whatever the case may be, and personally I don't believe either story in its entirety although both may hold grains of truth, it would appear we're spending this year fighting the French instead of the Romans!"

As September faded into October, Loholt at last made ready to return home. Thanking Old Garr profusely, he mounted his rouncey and, leading White Star by a trail of rope, rode out of Faringdon. Like his ride in, the skies were again full of threatening clouds and this time even a few raindrops fell, smacking the dirt trail between two vast fields, recently shorn of their harvest. As he rode, Loholt noticed a commotion at the edge of one of these fields. A scrawny milk cow was mooing in dismay as several men seemed to be fighting over it. Then he heard one of the men shouting and it was a cry for help. Securing his spear, Loholt trotted forwards.

"Help, please! They're trying to take my cow!" The cries came from an aged peasant; the three men around him looked like rough customers, perhaps of Saxon extraction. They had clearly been living wild for some time. One was holding the cow by its ear while the other two beat the old man with cudgels. Dropping his trail and arming his shield, Loholt charged into their midst.

Two of the bandits fled screaming, but the third turned from the farmer and tried to knock Loholt out of his saddle with a well-aimed blow of the cudgel. Despite connecting solidly, the squire's shield absorbed the full force of the blow, numbing Loholt's arm. He in turn stabbed down with his spear, opening a bloody tear in the bandit's chest. At this, the thug threw down his club and surrendered.

With the farmer's profuse words of thanks ringing in his ears, Loholt continued his journey, the bandit following behind, hands bound and tied to a lead. As the sun reached its highest point in the sky, Loholt rode to the gates of Uffington manor. He noted that a banner hung above the gate, the yellow and blue stripes of the Earl's court. A guest was paying Uffington a visit, clearly.

Within the hall, he found Sir Jaradan, legendary swordsman and Marshall of the County, dining at the table with his wife, Lady Gwiona, and their daughter. He knew of the young damsel Orlande by reputation - she was said to be the most beautiful lady in the county. He could now see that these rumors were flat-out wrong: she was easily the most beautiful lady in the whole realm! Loholt stood, frozen in the door of the hall, his mouth slightly ajar, unable to tear his eyes from the vision of loveliness seated at the table. Orlande. In one swift moment, she became his heart and his world. He smiled at her and was delighted when she deigned to smile back!

"Ah, our squire has returned!" said Sir Asser. His voice seemed to be coming from very far away.

"Hm? Oh. Yes," said Loholt, shaking his head, blinking rapidly, as he tore his gaze from Orlande and remembered his manners. "I have brought a prisoner, m'lord."

"What's this?" asked Asser, standing.

Loholt, inspired by Orlande's presence, gave a thrilling account of his defeat of the bandits and his adventure with the bear. Sir Jaradan looked on approvingly.

"Perhaps we have the makings of my heir to the title of Marshall?" he asked, a wry smile tracing his wrinkled face. "You have done your grandfather proud. And your father." He gave Loholt a meaningful look and the squire felt his face flush crimson.

"I was only doing my duty, sir," he said.

"Well keep it up and you'll be a knight before your eighteenth summer," said Jaradan, raising a goblet in toast. Loholt smiled in spite of himself.
The arms of the Lady Orlande

[Okay, two things about this adventure: it's usually pretty much of a cake walk with a group of knights, but I failed to take into account this would be getting run for a single character, and a squire to boot. So it turned out to be WAY tougher than we were expecting; Loholt nearly snuffed it before his career even got under way! This nicely echoes Herringdale's first adventure, in which he too was nearly killed. Like Herringdale, Loholt lost a point of APP from his Major Wound and picked up a wicked-cool facial scar.

Second, the Amor he generated for Orlande. When you generate a new Amor or Love passion, you roll 3d6 and add a variety of modifiers based on the target's APP, holdings, whether you successfully flirted, etc. Orldande's got APP and holdings in spades plus Loholt made his Flirting roll, so the modifiers really stacked up, and then Des rolled something like a 16 on her dice. So the Amor started in the low 30s. I'm pretty sure it says somewhere in the rulebook that the modifiers should be capped (at +10, perhaps?) but I'm ignoring that. Solo games are deadly enough as it is, and I don't see a problem with the scion of a legendary king possessing a legendary passion. We are heading into the Romance Period, after all!]
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