We’re six years into the Great Pendragon Campaign and we’ve arrived at our first “multi-session” year. My 2006-2008 Pendragon campaign had a lot of these because I was still in DnD mode, thinking that every adventure/year had to have something epic to it. With Pendragon in general, but particularly with the GPC, one is allowed to stretch out a bit. Some years will be brief, as when we covered 488-489 in the span of an afternoon. But then again, some years will be epic. It’s the ebb and flow of the game.
This year is proving to be one of those epic ones.
We’re one session in so far and there’s still lots of territory to cover, so this may turn out to be a three-part series of posts (or more!?). Bear with us. In the meantime, let’s cover what went on in our first session.
With lots of events both planned and no doubt unplanned to cover, I kicked things off as the main action was getting under way. Okay, I did do a little flashback, as in, “you pause for a moment to reflect on what got you here,” but for all intents and purposes we faded in on the year 490 in the late summer with Sir Herringdale sitting atop his warhorse, part of a great host of Uther’s knights. A quarter mile off an even greater Saxon host was assembled outside the walls of Lincoln; the sounds of their war drums and barbaric chanting drifted across the warm August breezes.
Sir Herringdale was serving under the banner of the redoubtable Sir Elad, who in turn was under Earl Roderick, who in turn was under King Uther, all of whom were lined up in the center vanguard of the army. In the left vanguard was Duke Ulfius of Silchester and various other Earls and their armies; to the right was Duke Gorlas of Cornwall (now firmly in Uther’s camp) and other subordinate lords, including the Duke of Lindsey. In the group, Herringdale knew, was Sir Jordans, Chamberlain of Lindsey. The two knights had exchanged cordial greetings since the arrival of Uther’s army at Lindsey earlier in the week but had not had a chance to be alone and talk of the events of the previous year.
Herringdale quickly banished such thoughts from his mind as Uther rode forward to address the troops. The army he rode before had assembled at his command to face a mighty Saxon host that had been ravaging the northern Cymric kingdoms for several years. The barbarian host was led by the cousins Octa and Eosa, and word around the campfire was that a lust to take posssession of Excalibur had driven the Saxons to challenge the might of Logres.
Uther rode up and down the ranks, his voice, perhaps aided by the enchanter Merlin, carrying out to reach the ears of all 2,000 assembled knights and 5,000 infantrymen who stood in reserve:
There has never been a stronger army assembled for battle as this. We are going to strike and destroy them for good! We are ready, they are impatient. Fight bravely and do your duty, good Sir Knights. Your day is dawning!
A great cheer rose up as Uther wheeled his horse around and led the host forward at a canter, Excalibur extended before him. Gradually the knights increased their speed until, over the last hundred yards, they were riding at a full gallop, spears leveled and banners flying bravely.
With a mighty crash, the charge rammed home and out came The Book of Battle. The Battle of Lindsey was under way.
At nine rounds, this promised to be a huge and bloody battle. One thing I wanted to check and make sure about before getting under way with Herringdale was to determine the fate of Sir Jordans. For a few days I had waffled back and forth on how to best accomplish this. On the one hand, defaulting to simple GM fiat felt too artificial; if I said he was dead or captured or grievously wounded, then it would come across as a rather obvious ploy as well as put me in the camp of GMs who punish their players every time a PC dares to form an attachment to an NPC. But if I said he came through okay, that seemed like a missed opportunity for drama.
In the end, I decided to take a half-hour before the game got under way and make some dice rolls, to run Jordans through his version of the battle just as if he was a PC. Sometimes spending a little extra time and detail on mass combat outcomes can prove worth it in the long run. It definitely did here.
Sir Jordans fared well through the first six rounds or so. Then he took a bad hit. Not enough to cause a major wound, but enough to knock him down to just above Unconscious threshold. I decided to give him a Valorous roll to see if he’d keep fighting or retire to the rear. He passed his Valorous. This made sense; Jordans, remember, was somewhat resentful of being a courtier and no doubt was relishing his chance to win his spurs properly, on the field of battle.
Things went fine for the next couple rounds. Then, on the final round of battle, Sir Jordans took a mortal wound. Oh dear. I gave this some thought and decided there might be a way to use this to dramatic advantage…
So we return to Sir Herringdale and his charge against the Saxons. A roll on the random enemy table came up with regular Saxon warriors armed with spears. Stabbing and trampling, Herringdale, fighting alongside his compatriots Bars, Leo, Lycus, and Jaradan, pierced through the enemy lines like a hot poker. Everyone “won” their combats, which meant that the force of the charge carried Sir Elad’s squadron deep into Saxon lines. But this was maybe not so good after all; in classic manner, the cavalry had overextended itself.
Although momentarily taken aback by the knights’ slaughter, the Saxons’ second line quickly formed up and began to close in. Herringdale and company fought desperately as elite heorthgeneats, chanting a war hymn to Wotan, closed in on one side, peasant ceorl levy on the other. Herringdale took a light wound to the thigh from a hurled javelin, but he and his brethren continued to acquit themselves well, driving the Saxons back with an aggressive defense.
Unfortunately, as the third hour of the battle wore on, the Saxons were recouping from the initial blow and Sir Elad’s squadron looked to be in serious danger of becoming cut off. The Marshal signaled a general retreat, and Sir Herringdale rode furiously back towards friendlier fields like a cork shooting out of a bottle.
Recovering back behind the Killing Fields, Sir Elad’s squadron took a moment to evaluate casualties—surprisingly light—and look for new opportunities to rejoin the fray. One soon presented itself in the form of a unit of mounted Saxon lancers moving up to counter-charge the British forces. Fortunately, a volley from a nearby unit of allied Penine archers disordered the Saxon lancers, and Sir Elad seized the moment, ordering an immediate charge.
Sir Herringdale waded back into combat, his sword swinging left and right. The lancers were set to flight and again the squadron pushed deeper into the Saxon ranks. By this time the resolve of the Saxon army was beginning to visibly weaken, and as Herringdale advanced he could see other friendly units pushing their way deeper as well.
Now a unit of richly-appointed hearth guard moved up to cover the retreating lancers, but they were no match for the brave knights of Salisbury. I think it was around this time that Herringdale was knocked off his charger by a fearsome blow that would have killed a lesser man not protected as Herringdale was (this was the first time Herringdale was feeling the benefit of those extra three points of armor his new Chivalry Bonus grants him). Herringdale’s faithful squire (making his Squire roll) was on hand to give his own horse to his lord. Herringdale remounted the rouncey as his squire made his way off to recover the charger.
By the sixth hour of battle, the Saxon army had signaled the general retreat and Sir Elad’s squadron was pushing ever deeper through the wavering enemy lines. They even caught up with the lancers who had retired before them earlier and put them once more to flight!
In the seventh hour of battle, Duke Gorlas (who I rather picture as Bernard Hill as Theoden), fighting on the right, laid low the giant co-general Eosa. The Saxon left flank crumbled into a full rout.
Sir Herringdale and his compatriots continued to push deeper into the Saxon host; they could see the Saxon camp just beyond the units they were facing. Victory was close enough to taste.
At that point, the eighth hour of battle, a great opportunity presented itself. Drawn in by the spreading panic from their left, the Saxon center fell into full flight and Sir Elad spotted none other that King Octa turning to flee along with his bodyguard. Standing nearby, signaling the retreat, was the bearer of the Saxon army banner, a great prize should it be taken!
As Sir Elad led Bar, Leo, Lycus, and Jaradan after King Octa, Sir Herringdale volunteered to ride down the banner bearer. Putting spur to horse, Des invoked Herringdale’s Hate (Saxons) passion. (In Pendragon battles, due to the extended time frame, you can only invoke a given Passion for a single round, so it pays to try and wait for the right moment to do so.) The Passion did its work, and she hacked into the standard bearer, nearly separating the arm holding the banner from the rest of him with a single blow. Miraculously, the standard bearer survived having his arm nearly severed, but he was no fool. Dropping the banner, he turned and made a run for it. Herringdale let him go; he had his prize, and in so taking it had essentially emasculated the entirety of the Saxon army in one fell swoop!
At this point, an aside on the deadliness of Pendragon combat: the sequence of events presented above were actually a sort of second take on things. Originally, Herringdale inflicted a Major Wound on the banner bearer as stated, but I forgot about a crucial roll. When a PC or NPC takes a Major Wound, they have to make two rolls: one against current hit points to remain conscious (which I remembered to make and the Saxon passed); the other a roll against Valorous to see if there’s still any fight in them. I forgot about the Valorous roll, and the combat continued. Sir Herringdale decided to dismount as the Saxon fell back (his banner pole functioned as a Great Spear, I’d decided, which negated Herringdale’s mounted bonus anyway), and proceeded to roll some paltry damage on the next couple hits. Then I rolled a Critical for the Saxon’s attack! Suddenly Herringdale was caught off guard and taking 12d6 damage! The dice came up with a relatively low damage total, but it would have still be enough to knock Herringdale out and leave him at the Saxon’s mercy.
It was at this point that I remembered the Valorous roll I should have made. I said to Des, “If I fail this Valorous roll, then none of that other stuff happened. Otherwise, we proceed as normal.” I duly failed the Valorous roll and we “rewound” to the point before Herringdale was laid low.
Not that I would’ve minded the latter outcome. I’ve seen some critique Pendragon for having a system where a single dice roll can affect the outcome of combat so dramatically, but to me that is one of the strengths of the system. It makes the victories all the sweeter, the failures all the more crushing. We will shortly see another example of the “take no prisoners” effect of the game mechanics, and so far in all cases, even the bitterest pills to swallow have contributed to an overall feeling of inhabiting the melodrama, the sweeping emotions, the dizzying highs, crushing lows, and creamy middles, that typify the Arthurian tales.
At any rate, now in possession of the banner, Herringdale was hailed as a hero by his compatriots. Their own attempt to capture King Octa had failed; the villain had scarpered and Sir Leo had been laid low by a royal hearth guard. But no matter—the Saxon army was in full retreat! With the sun now beginning to sink towards the horizon, Herringdale and the rest of the army rode forward to pursue their fleeing foes.
All across the battlefield, small units of diehard Saxons fought desperate rearguard actions against Uther’s knights as they spread out into small bands to hunt for their scattered enemy. As he rode in pursuit, Herringdale caught sight of none other than Sir Jordans, his pennant flying proudly. About a hundred yards distant and coming up on a small copse of tall grass and trees, Sir Jordans in turn caught sight of Herringdale. He waved his spear in greeting, his beaming smile just visible even at this distance.
Sir Herringdale was about to return the salute when, horrified, he saw a small band of Saxon berserkers break from the tall grass on Jordans’ blind side and, well, blindside him. This was the final round of the battle and the result I had rolled before the game got under way. Axes and swords brought down Jordans and his horse and Sir Herringdale, seeing red (Des critted her Love (Jordans) passion), rode in to save his bosom friend.
Inspired by one of my favorite illustrations from the Pendragon 5th Edition rulebook, I described the leader of the berserkers rising up, a sword in each hand, to meet Herringdale’s charge.
I showed Des the picture, at which point she exclaimed, “Die Saxon hippie scum!” (Don’t you love it when players really get into the game?) And, with Herringdale rolling Crits on a 4 or better thanks to his passion, proceeded to scalp the Saxon, who fell backwards like a statue, still in his challenge pose. (Des rolled enough damage to cause a Major Wound but not enough to kill or even incapacitate the Saxon—tough buggers, those berserkers. However, he failed his roll to stay conscious, so I ruled that Herringdale’s sword had taken off the top of the Saxon’s skull, sending his mop-top flying. I gave the other berserkers a Valorous roll at a steep penalty, and they fled. Herringdale jumped down from his rouncey and knelt beside Sir Jordans.
So here’s how I’d decided to handle things: Sir Jordans had taken something like 26 points of damage from the berserkers and was well down into the negatives. Normally that equates to “deader than a door nail,” but Sir Herringdale has a Family Trait of “Natural Healer”. I decided to bend the rules a bit in favor of drama; if Herringdale could succeed in a First Aid roll, he would stabilize Sir Jordans and prolong his life long enough to get him back to the healers’ tents. Thanks to his Family Trait, Sir Herringdale had an unusually high First Aid skill. A roll of 17 or less on a d20 would save Sir Jordans.
Des rolled an 18. So it goes.
Sir Jordans’ eyes fluttered open and he saw Herringdale leaning over him, helpless to give aid to such grievous wounds. Seeing Herringdale brought a bloody smile to Jordans’ lips and with his last ounce of strength, he reached a gloved hand up and squeezed Herringdale’s hand. Then his eyes closed and Sir Jordans was no more.
Highs and lows or what? Again, Pendragon’s unforgiving system strikes and again we get high drama and memories that will last us for years. Des even shed a couple tears, so touching was the scene.
I wrapped things up with a description of the victory feast back at Lincoln Castle. Sir Herringdale was afforded a place of honor at the King’s table, the banner he had taken laid out as a tablecloth. In addition to his share of battle plunder (14 libra!), Herringdale received a personal gift as recognition for his heroics from King Uther of another 25 libra(!) and a charger(!!). For his actions in battle, Sir Herringdale amassed over 1,000 Glory. Yet all of it meant nothing. All Herringdale could think about as he drowned in his cups was how, at that very castle a year earlier, he had drunk himself into a stupor so that he didn’t have to say goodbye to Jordans. And they hadn’t really had a chance to talk since, and now he’d never have a chance to say goodbye. Sir Jordans was gone.
Yet life goes on. Great entertainments were unveiled for the assembled nobility’s delight. Tumblers, fire-eaters, flatulists, and musicians plied their skills in between sumptuous courses. The highlight of the evening was when a phalanx of beauties, led by Duke Gorlas’s wife Igraine, came before the high table and sang a wondrous chorus. Igraine’s mellifluous voice floated up above all the others as the congregation of knights stared, mouths agape, at her otherworldly beauty.
Perhaps a sign of Herringdale’s detachment (and sexual proclivities) can be glimpsed in what happened next: upon first seeing Igraine (who has an APP of 32!), all knights must make a Lustful roll; success means they develop a directed trait of Lust: Igraine. Herringdale failed his Lustful. Those that fail that roll must make a Chaste roll. Success on this roll grants a Passion of Amor (Igraine). Again, Herringdale, clearly non-plussed, failed his roll. Looking around, he caught sight of Uther, who was quite obviously entranced by Igraine’s beauty…and of Gorlas, who was cagily watching the King, his eyes narrowed in guarded suspicion.
I previewed the next session by telling Des she’d have a choice to make. King Uther was taking his army up to Eburacum to meet with the Centurion King of Malahaut. From there, the two kings would make their way to Carrick for a sort of royal summit with other kings of the north. As one of the heroes of the Battle of Lindsey, Herringdale has the option of riding in the King’s honor guard. Alternatively, Prince Madoc is organizing raiding parties to send north into the Saxon kingdoms of Nohaut and Diera to repay some measure of the destruction that had been visited on the kingdoms of the Britons in recent years. A third option would be to stay back at Eburacum with Earl Roderick and lay low. We’ll see which way Des chooses to go with our next session. Til then!