Prince Valiant session today


Since my last post about my group's Prince Valiant game, we've played two sessions of it. (Other sessions played in the meantime have included Classic Traveller, The Dying Earth and Cthulhu Dark.)

The first of those saw the PCs mustering recruits for their military order - the Holy Order of St Sigobert - from among baptised Saxons. They then took a ship to the Continent, the first leg of their journey to the Holy Land and crusade.

I decided to use the Jeff Grub scenario from the Prince Valiant Episode The Mare's Lamp, with the PCs' boat being wrecked. I was a bit worried about this episode going in - it didn't seem to have a super-robust set-up nor an orientation towards resolution - and play verified that. The PCs surived the ship wreck, rescued many of their men and much of their gear, and routed the bandits trying to loot their wrecked vessel. They did not stop a second, merchant, vessel being lured onto the rocks but they were able to assist its captain and crew. As presented, thought, the scenario provided little framework for the fallout from all this. That session ended with the PCs deciding to try and find out who was behind the attempts to wreck vessels on the southern French coast, and with me worried that the game was devolving into a puzzle-solving type orientation that it is not intended to support.

For various reasons we haven't played a session for several weeks. Today I turned up with four options good to go - Prince Valiant, Traveller, Cthulhu Dark and Cortex+ Heroic RP - and the table opted for Prince Valiant. Luckily I had been doing some reading through the Episode Book over the intervening time and had noticed another episode - Bilgewater Brigands - with quite a degee of strory/trope overlap with The Mare's Lamp but a much tighter framing, including deatils on the plotting behind the banditry, and so I decided to use that.

But that scenario, as presented, is premised on the PCs turning up ignorant of the bandits, whereas in my case the PCs were on their trail. And I wanted to contintue to develop the whole knightly crusading theme. So I had a herald from the local lord turn up to greet the knights of St Sigobert and invite them to visit him. I then flipped through the Episode Book and found Mark Rein*Hagen's A Prodigal Son - In Chain's. This offered me a tyrant duke and oppressed peasants, and seemed well-suited to interleave with the Brigands plotlline - as shall now be explained! (I can't remember all the checks that were made, but will call out some of those that I do remember to give a sense of how the play unfolded in mechanical terms.)

The PCs split into two groups: Sir Justin and Sir Gerren, respectively Master and Marshall of the order, rode with the men to the castle; while Sir Morgoth, being the son of merchants, took up the identity of a merchant and with the entertainer Twillany entered the coastal village to try to get to the bottom of the ship-wrecking banditry. As the session unfolded we moved back-and-forth between the two groups until their paths reconverged, briefly in the pre-dawn and then again in the unexpected climax.

As the knights travelled to the castle of the local Duke they saw how poor the countryside was, and several burned farmhouses. They inferred that either the Duke had lost control of his lands, or was oppressing them - and when they arrived at his grand well-garissioned castle they worked out which of those was the case! They feasted with him, and he learned that they had few resources to support their crusade, while failing to persuade him to offer them money. They also met the Duke's daughter, the proud, beautiful and rather stern Alia.

During the knight, Sir Justin was roused by an attempt to knock him unconscious with a rolling pin to the head. He struggled with the assailant and in virtue of his superior skill at arms, and despite the disadvanage of starting the fight lying in bed and with a badly bruised head, ended up stabbing him through the eye with the Dagger of St Sigobert (the only weapon to which he had access - he sleeps with it by his side).

Sir Gerren had remained soundly asleep throughout the struggle - a series of very poor Presence rolls Justin and the assailant fought - but was finally woken by the death rattle of the latter. The two knights debated what to do, but in the end thought it best to be public about what had happened, but rather than try and incriminate the duke (whom they assumed was trying to capture them for ransom, Justin being married to a noble lady of Warwick with a wealthy family) decided to frame it as an attack by a heathen who hated the holy order and its knights.

The Duke went along with this, suggesting that perhaps the assailant was a Cathar. When Justin suggested that the knights would leave the next day to continue on their quest the Duke insisted that Justin needed rest, and that he could take Sir Gerren and the men of the order on a small hunt while he did so. But Justin insisted that he was ready to ride forth and that nothing would stop a knight of St Sigobert. The debate of Courtesie was resolved as an extended contest, and Justin won handily (with some very good rolling by his player) and so the Duke had to concede that Justin and his men would indeed depart on the morrow. Justin's sobriquet is "the Gentle", but in Bordeaux he is now known as Sir Justin the Resolute.

Meanwhile . . .

When Twillany and Morgoth entered the village not long before nightfall, there was (as per the intro to Bilgewater Brigands) a dispute going on between the merchant captain of the second wrecked ship and a local tough Robert. His player, and Twillany's, succeeded on checks to not be recognised as survivors from the wreck (Morgoth was out of his armour, helmet and finery; and Twillany had lain low during the events of the shipwreck, so this wasn't hard).

It seemed that one of Robert's men had been paid to dive into the wrecked ship and see if the cargo could be rescued, but had not come up. The story going about the village was that ghosts of the drowned soldiers of St Sigobert - members of the PCs' order who had not survived their wreck - had caught and drowned him. Robert was insisting that any further exploration of the vessel would require higher pay. He tried to call on Morgoth - from his perspective a newly-arrived merchant - to support his claim but Morgoth declined to do . So the dispute stalemated, and Twillany instead made a small amount of money performing and singing for the villagers, some of whom observed that "it was good to have something good rather than bad happening when darkness comes".

Morgoth took this to be an indicator of supernatural activity, but Twillany was sceptical. (In previous sessions Morgoth has encountered a demon, a ghost and seemingly magical crows - but Twillany has seen none of this, and has enough skill with and experience of sleight of hand to doubt there is any such thing as magic.) They spent the knight staying in the house of a widow (whose husband had been killed on the beach the night before). Talking to her they learned that a terrible scream had come from Robert's man before he failed to return from the wrecked ship. They also learned that Robert had some sort of connection to the Duke, as the tax collectors always spared his house when they came through the village.

Not long before dawn they noticed furtive but hurried movements about the village. Sir Morgoth went out to see what was going on, but his player failed a Stealth roll and so he was grabbed from behind. But with a series of good rolls he was able to talk his assailant - Luc - into speaking to him instead. He learned that another man had disappeared in the vessel with a terrible scream while trying to loot it for valuables. And he confirmed that Robert is behind the luring of vessels onto the rocks as well as an enforcer/godfather in the village. Luc explained that there were basically two options - persuade the merchant to pay Robert so that there would be money to distribute, or else break Robert's hold over the town. Morgoth decided for the latter. But he also decided that he wanted to confront Robert with a ghost of a soldier of St Sigobert - as this would be likely to persuade him to repent and relent - and to do this he needed the blessed Dagger of St Sigobert. So he rode quickly to the castle, while Twillany staked out Robert's house.

At the Duke's castle all was in uproar due to the attack upon Sir Justin, and the stocks of the worthies of St Sigobert were high as Justin had been seen by a number of castle-folk to persuade the Duke of the righteousness of his cause and hence his need to set off in the morning. So Morgoth was able to gain entrance to seek the blessing of St Sigobert. This provided some amusing player-vs-player RP, as Morgoth has resisted himself joining the order (and indeed joined the crusade only because in a Fellowship contest he was bested by Sir Justin) but now had to kneel before the Master of the order and agree to uphold their ideals in order to receive the blessing (and a loan of the Dagger) of St Sigobert. Being a cruel referee I insisted that Morgoth's player succeed at a Presence roll to check his temper when directed to kneel; he did so, and even rolled well enough to keep his grimace purely on the inside.

Being appropriately equipped, Morgoth now rode as quickly as he could (successful Riding check) to get to the beach, where Luc was waiting with a coracle, before Robert got there. Luc rowed him out to the vessel, and he dove in armed with the blessed Dagger ready to confront the spirits of dead men - only to find that Twillany's scepticism was warranted and that (as per the Bilgewater Brigands scenario) the real cause of disappearing divers - a giant octopus which he had basically no chance of defeating even on land let alone underwater. (Morgoth is better at talking than fighting.) He tried to escape out of the ship but wasn't quick enough, and so swam out through the hold in the hull instead. But as per the scenario description he was making periodic rolls to hold his breath and, as he escaped, this check failed. So he would have drowned, except that - the sun having risen - Luc could see him and so dragged him from the water into the coracle. (Some GM mercy - as well as allowing the befriending strategy to pay off.)

As they rowed back to shore Robert and his toughs were there waiting for them. But as they beached the coracle Twillany, who had seen Robert leave his house and had headed down to the bluffs above the beach, threw a dagger into Robert's back (the roll had bonus dice for a rear attack and had a good number of successes). Morgoth then leapt from the Coracle armed with the dagger and fought Robert knife-to-knife. In the end, with a little help from another thrown knife, Morgoth was victorious, and Robert was dead.

When morning came in the castle, Sir Gerren - being the Marshall of the order - had gone down to rouse the men from where they were staying in a tower on the outer wall, and to lead them in prayer in the outer bailey. Sir Justin, meanwhile, had heard a curious exchange between two kitchen hands while taking breakfast in a room in the tower, on the inner wall, where he and Sir Gerren had spent the night. One was complaining to the other that "now that Quink was dead, Hugo had been given the special duties", and as a result the complainer had had to lug up a side of pork on his own. Sir Justin assumed Quink to be the assailant he had killed in the night, and wondered what "special duties" might involve. But the time for further invetigation was cut short due to other unfolding events . . .

Morgoth decided that the best way to deal with the toughs on the beach - who now were at a loose end with Robert dead and there being a largely unbeatable kraken in the ship they hoped to loot , was to recruit them to the order of St Sigobert. The toughs explained how they were oppressed by the Duke, who even sold their children into slavery; and Morgoth explained that the order of St Sigobert was dedicated to brining healing to the ill and water to the thirsty. News of this spread through the village, and Twillany also spread the word (with successful Oratory) and before they knew it they had a crowd of a hundred or so village men coming with them to seek to join the order and gain its protection, many accompanied by wives and children (not yet sold off). By the time Morgoth and Twillany realised they had started a peasant revolt it was too late to stop it; and their numbers only grew as they travelled through the countryside to the castle.

At the castle Sir Gerren could see the garrison ordering and deploying itself, but it wasn't until too late - and the gate was shut, trapping him and his men in the outer bailey - that he realised that the order was the target of hostilities (failed Presence + Battle check). He gave a speech that roused his men (successful Oratory), and he sent a messenger to fetch Sir Justin, but Justin's player did not roll well enough on a Courtesie check to persuade the men in the tower to let him come through. He was apprehended, while Justin retreated to his room and armed himself.

Then - being a far too weak referee - I decided that Sir Gerren's player, and Morgoth's, had eached earned a Stortyteller's Certificate (the Prince Valiant version of a rather powerful fate point).

Sir Gerren decied to use his to Arouse the Passion of a Crowd - in this case, to persuade the men-at-arms hodling the gatehouse to open the gate and join with the order of St Sigobert. The player gave his speech, and handed in his certificate, and the gate was opened - and the 9 soldiers in the gatehouse realised that now was the time to abandon their support of a rapacious lord and join instead with a holy order.

We then switched to the mass combat rules - the most complex part of the system, and one I still haven't quite got the hang of despite this being the third time we've used these rules. We agreed that the battle would unfold over three rounds - first the men in the castle trying to defend themselves, then the peasants joining them, and then - as the third round - the washup of whatever had unfolded to that point.

For the first round Sir Gerren, Marshall of the Order of St Sigobert, took the command, and rolled five successes on five dice (a 1 in 32 chance) and so reduced the Duke's dice quite heavily. The men in the baily had held their position and defeated many of those attacking from the walls and towers! In the personal part of the resolution - to see what happens to individual PCs - neither Gerren nor Justin was injured, but both where shaken in their Presence. Clearly Gerren was feeling the pressure of command, while Justin had drawn on nearly all his reservoirs of courage to try and fight his way out of the tower and into the bailey.

In the second round, Morgoth's player decided to use his Certificate also to Arouse Passions to ensure the peasants would storm the castle and join the fight - he didn't trust that Twillany, who was leading them holding aloft the Dagger of St Sigobert, could make a good enough Oratory check. This gave the PCs' forces a significant benefit from numbers, though reducing the quality of their troops. Sir Gerren again made the command roll, but tied with the Duke: so the peasants held but the struggle was unresolved. Sir Gerren again rolled poorly for his personal Presence check and swooned, overwhelemed by the stress of command; while the others held firm and remained unhurt. With his personal checks being successful this time, we agreed that Justin had been able to fight his way out of the tower and join with the rest of his brethren.

In the third round Twillany - who earlier in the session had earned enough fame to buy one rank in Battle, and now was putting it to use! - took command. A good opposed roll reduced the Duke's command dice to zero, and so the peasants supported by the soldiers of St Sigobert were victorious! None of the PCs was hurt, but - as per Rein*Hagen's Prodigal Son scenario - the duke was dead, shot by a peasant archer with a flaming arrow. I finished events by narrating an event from the scenario - Lady Alia is still in the castle keep, and orders her handmaiden in a tower to drop a handkerchief, signalling a rider to set off for relief.

The players haven't decided what to do with the castle - they realise it may be hard to hold it if the local nobles object, and are contemplating a wedding of the (widowed) Sir Gerren to Alia as a possible solution to this. There is also the "kraken" to deal with, and some other backstory from the Rein*Hagen scenario that hasn't come out yet and has interesting potential if it does. As presented in the Episode Book the scenario is something of a railroad but by ignoring that while using the core motifs of a tyrant Duke and an oppressed peasantry we generated a peasant revolution anyway - which was very much a surprise for the players, who had only set out to solve the mystery of the village. I was less surprised than them that theire was a peasant uprising, as following the scenario I was the one who was introducing the tyrant and his unhappy subjects. But I hadn't quite expected the PCs - and the two least martial ones, at that - to take the Duke's castle in the name of St Sigobert.

Hopefully we'll get in another session soon.

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