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The Circle of Briton

posted Mar 23, 2013 14:08:26 by lawrence.whitaker
This is my epic campaign based on Bernard Cornwell's 'Warlord Chronicles' ('The Winter King', 'Enemy of God' and 'Excalibur'), a retelling of the Arthurian saga based in late 5th Century Briton at the height of the Saxon incursion. The aim was to run each book across the space of a week at our annual Petecon gathering in northern Sweden. The experiment has been a huge success, although each campaign has seen some considerable divergence from the events in the novels. I've kept the core intrigues and characters appearing in the stories the same (so Lancelot is craven and vain; Guinevere crafty and manipulative; Sansum oily and deeply annoying), but the events structure has changed a great deal.

Player Characters

Eowald (Pete) - a harp-playing warrior of Dumnonia
Efford (Howard) - a noble-born warrior and counsellor of Dumnonia
Dagrun (Colin) - a Saxon-born slave given his freedom by Arthur
Forni (Tim) - a love-lorn warrior and favourite of Nimue
Galahad (Dave) - Prince of Armorica and brother of Lancelot, now the King of Siluria and protector of Dumnonia
Nimue (John) - a cunning druidess and Merlin's protege
Culwch (Carl) - a gambling, whoring warrior from Dumnonia; one of Arthur's cousins

The characters work together as a warband, in the service of the edling, Mordred - although over time they have attracted their own followers and so are now commanders of several warbands. I'll summarise their story across separate threads as its pretty extensive. We'll begin with 'The Winter King'.

The Winter King
Norwenna, King Uther's daughter-in-law, gives birth to Mordred. The child has a club-foot, which is a poor omen for the Britons. Uther sends Norwenna and Mordred to live at The Tor, Merlin's stronghold in the marshes of Avalon, while he decides who shall marry her (her husband having died at Saxon hands a year or so before). The characters, all visitors to the Tor, are given the task of acting as Norwenna's honour guard.

At the subsequent high council, it is decided that Gundleus, King of Siluria, will marry Norwenna. Gundleus is sly, warlike, and ambitious. Uther falls ill and dies; Gundleus makes his play for the control of Dumnonia by marching on the Tor, killing Norwenna and attempting to kill Mordred. The characters stage a defence against Gundleus's warriors and succeed in helping Mordred escape, along with other residents of the Tor. Nimue encounters Tanaburs, Gundleus's druid, and so begins an extensive vendetta.

Gundleus tracks the characters to Caer Cadarn, Uther's old seat, and lays siege. His warriors gain access to the hillfort and the characters have to marshall the meagre forces to defend Mordred. Eowald takes command of a shield wall for the first time and finds himself in single combat with Gundleus's champion, Braesca. Eowlad fights well, but the Silurians have the upper-hand until Gundleus, intent on murdering Mordred, is slain by Efford. Tanaburs regroups the Silurian warbands, but the plans to raze the Tor are stopped by the intervention of Arthur, who has returned with his cavalry to support Mordred. Knowing that they are routed, the Silurians surrender. Eowald gives Braesca his freedom - something Braesca will remember (and lead to a firm friendship later).

So Arthur has returned to Briton and become its protector until Mordred is old enough to take the throne. The characters are rewarded for their valour and Arthur asks them to continue as Mordred's honour guard.

In the next thread I'll continue with the Winter King and describe the momentous events that lead to Arthur's first betrayal of Briton, and how the characters handle things...
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9 replies
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lawrence.whitaker said Mar 23, 2013 16:06:32
With Arthur's return, Dumnonia sets to re-ordering. The characters are sent with one of the warband leaders, Owain, to collect taxes from the settlements in the south of the kingdom. One of the greedy local leaders tells Owain that men from Kernow (Cornwall) have been coming into Dumnonia to operate mines and may have even found gold. Owain, seeing an eye for a quick profit, decides to launch an attack on these settlers and has the characters lead an assault.

The assault goes badly, with a great deal of carnage. The characters help some of the settlers escape, but the damage is done.

On their return to Caer Cadarn, they find that the local Christians, based at the Church of the Holy Thorn, have a new leader: Sansum. A bigoted proselytiser, Sansum is fleecing pilgrims and hiding the proceeds - some of which ought to be paid to Mordred as taxes. The characters arrange a diversion that sees part of the church burned whilst they discover where the money is hidden. Arthur is brought to review the findings and has most of the money confiscated, much to Sansum's chagrin. In return he pleads to be allowed to become the Christian priest ministering to Mordred and Arthur, agrees, feeling somewhat guilty for taking the church's money.

Later, Prince Tristan of Kernow arrives at Caer Cadarn with a young girl - a survivor of the attack on the miners. He demands justice. Arthur talks with the characters and learns of Owain's actions: something that swiftly gets back to Owain's warband. Tristan demands combat in the Court of Swords, challenging Owain to a deadly duel. Efford offers to fight in Tristan's place and cunningly lures Owain into making a fatal mistake as they battle in the grounds of Caer Cadarn. Efford kills Owain and a truce is agreed with Kernow. Efford and Tristan become firm friends.

The angered warband, seeking to avenge Owain, manage to ambush Eowald as he leaves the hall at Caer Cadarn following a feast. They drag him to the nearby river and sever his right hand in punishment. Nimue intervenes, having watched the ambush secretly, and curses Owain's men. In fear of the druidess, they pledge to her service. Nimue takes Eowald to have his wound cauterised and tended-to.

Some months later Arthur declares that he will, in order to gain an alliance with the kingdom of Powys, marry the daughter of King Gryffyd. Ceinwyn is a reported beauty and so the characters accompany Arthur north for the rituals. Sansum tags-along, even though this will be a pagan marriage. Ceinwyn proves to be as beautiful as everyone says, and several of the characters fall for her grace, good humour and wonderful looks. Dagrun, out walking, comes across Ceinwyn bathing and although he does his best to hide, he fumbles and attracts her attention. Far from being angry, Ceinwyn talks long with the ex-slave and Dagrun falls completely in love with her.

At the betrothal feast, Ceinwyn and Arthur are resplendent. All goes well until Guinevere, a princess from a neighbouring kingdom, makes a grand entrance. Tall, regal and stunning, it is clear Arthur's heart has been captured. The characters watch Arthur closely for the next couple of days and learn of his plan to reject Ceinwyn and marry Guinevere. The loyalty the characters feel towards Ceinwyn forces them to confront Arthur, who had been consulting with Sansum to perform a marriage. It takes a great deal of persuasion, but eventually Arthur agrees that he and Ceinwyn must marry. Eowald gains his first glimpses of Arthur's faults and angrily points out the damage he could have caused. Arthur reluctantly agrees that he had been foolish. He and Ceinwyn are married and return to Caer Cadarn.

In the next instalment, the characters travel to Armorica to help Arthur fulfil an oath. There they meet Lancelot and encounter the Franks - foes every bit as fierce as the Saxons.
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Thalaba said Mar 24, 2013 22:31:34
Interesting stuff, Loz!

Did you ever read 'The Mists of Avalon'? That book also painted Guinevere as an annoying character.

I'm curious to know how you balanced the demands involved in trying to stick to the fiction of the book and the demands of the players to do their own thing. You mentioned the two diverting, but as a GM were you tempted to try to steer the fiction somewhat?
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lawrence.whitaker said Mar 25, 2013 02:40:50
Did you ever read 'The Mists of Avalon'? That book also painted Guinevere as an annoying character.


I did - long ago. She was more annoying than scheming; Cornwell's Guinevere is conniving and clever, but never annoying.

I'm curious to know how you balanced the demands involved in trying to stick to the fiction of the book and the demands of the players to do their own thing. You mentioned the two diverting, but as a GM were you tempted to try to steer the fiction somewhat?


I let the players do their own thing within the confines of a particular chapter. With a lengthy period of downtime between each play session, I could somehow (but not always) steer the plot back to that of the book. Mind you, this only worked for 'The Winter King' scenarios. By the time we get to 'Enemy of God', the characters are firmly driving the plot and it diverged more and more from the book - in some very exciting and dramatic ways.
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jasonwpacker said Mar 25, 2013 04:50:25
I wonder if you have any recollection of interactions with the rules during these scenes - situations where the mechanics either bound up on you, or where they were just so smooth that you found yourself remarkably satisfied with the outcome.
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lawrence.whitaker said Mar 25, 2013 11:46:50
I wonder if you have any recollection of interactions with the rules during these scenes - situations where the mechanics either bound up on you, or where they were just so smooth that you found yourself remarkably satisfied with the outcome.


When we started, we were in the process of writing RQ6, so those first sessions were a good test-bed for various things we were tinkering with. As I recall, only shield-walls were a little problematic, but we found a reasonable workaround for the times when they were needed.

Otherwise, nothing bound-up on me. What did work incredibly well (and still do) were the Passions. They've become central to the campaign and character motivations.
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lawrence.whitaker said Mar 25, 2013 13:11:10
Having ensured that Arthur and Ceinwyn marry, Arthur tells the characters that he sending them to Armorica to help fulfill his oath to King Ban, its ruler. The Franks are pressing constantly on Armorica’s borders and Arthur had led the fight against them for several years. He promised to return after ensuring Mordred’s place to be secure, but it has become evident that he is needed in Briton.

The characters sail to Ynys Trebes (Mont St Michel, on the Brittany coast) where they meet, for the first time, Galahad, Lancelot and Cullwch. Galahad and Lancelot, brothers, are the sons of King Ban – an absent-minded monarch with a deep love for poetry and an ambition to make Ynys Trebes a haven for artists. The battle against the Franks is being led by Galahad although Lancelot, a vain and craven man, takes all the glory being the elder of the two. Lancelot is dismissive of Arthur’s tribute and takes every opportunity to insult the ‘boys’ who have been sent to their aid. Galahad and Cullwch are welcoming though, and the characters quickly gain standing amongst the Armorican warbands, leading successful assaults against the encroaching Franks.

After two years of war, the Franks are over-running Armorica and press the Celts back to Ynys Trebes. It is clear that the Britons must evacuate. In the meantime, the characters learn that an ancient Christian priest who has been studying in Trebes’ huge library, is Merlin. The druid has been missing for several years and it transpires that he has been researching the 13 Treasures of Briton – essential to restoring the rule of the Old Gods and supplanting the Christian God. Merlin agrees to return to Briton with the characters.

A tense siege ensues. The characters mount a spirited defence against the Franks, making use of the local tides to slow their assault on the fortress. But it is in vain. The Franks outnumber the Britons considerably and so as many as can, flee in fishing vessels. Lancelot ‘volunteers’ to led the advance party instead of coming to Trebes’ defence – a situation that is deeply unpopular with the characters, and so they do all they can keep him at the forefront of the fighting. Lancelot, in customary style, betrays the characters, ensuring he and his retinue take the best fishing vessels in an escape, leaving the rest to their fate.

King Ban and his wife perish while trying to save their books and poems. The characters and Merlin marshal the remaining forces and hold the Franks for as long as they can before making their own escape.

Eventually, they arrive back in Briton. Lancelot is there before them though, and has lied about the events there, claiming the characters did little to prevent the destruction of Trebes and playing-up his (non-existent) role in its defence. Enmity between the characters grows – particularly Eowald and Dagrun. Eowald loathes Lancelot’s cowardice and lies. Dagrun is jealous of Lancelot’s clear attraction to Ceinwyn. Arthur bids them to suffer Lancelot’s jibes and falsehoods, claiming that the Saxons are the most pressing concern.

The characters learn that, in their absence, Arthur has moved the capital of Dumonia to the old Roman town of Lindinis. Guinevere has also moved to the town, her family having been dispossessed from their territories on the Welsh coast. The relationship between Guinevere and Arthur has been developing. Ceinwyn is deeply unhappy, and the town is rife with the rumours that Guinevere and Arthur are lovers.

Dagrun, still very much in love with Ceinwyn, forges a strong friendship with her. She teaches him to read and write, and this gives Dagrun an insight into the deterioration of her marriage to Arthur. Ceinwyn refuses to blame either Guinevere or Arthur, seeming to believe that Guinevere is better suited to the role a wife of a warlord needs to play. Dagrun continues his lessons, and also notes the frequency with which Lancelot visits Ceinwyn at her home. The loathing builds.

Everything comes a head when Arthur, having argued with Ceinwyn, says he wants a divorce. Dagrun tries to console the distraught girl and, in one of those tense moments where one really needs to fail a Passion roll, criticals it instead. He proclaims his love for her. Ceinwyn recoils and runs to her rooms.

The repercussions of Arthur’s betrayal – because it is clear that he and Guinevere are lovers – are huge. Ceinwyn’s father, the gruff, warlike Gryffydd, hears of the insult and makes plans for war against Dumnonia, recruiting aid from both the Blackshield Irish and the Silurians. Eowald makes a desperate ride to Powys to try to placate the enraged King, but to no effect. Ceinwyn’s brother, Cuneglas, tells Eowald that what Arthus has done can never be repaired.

In the next instalment we will hear of the Battle of Lugg Vale, and discover precisely what Ceinwyn thinks of Dagrun’s proclamations of love…
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Dreameister said Mar 25, 2013 17:36:53
in one of those tense moments where one really needs to fail a Passion roll, criticals it instead


I've had similar things happen in several different games I GMed, and consistently the best plot elements came as results of those moments. Because of that I was delighted when I found out that you've included Passions as a regular mechanic in RQ instead of an option. Passions rule :)

In a different matter, how do you GM battles? Do you use mechanics developed in Empires (or Elric) or do you rule them as combat encounters with characters in medias res? I tend to do it in two phases, planning before engagement, then I put the characters in the middle of the battle for all the gruesome experiences. Happily, none of my players ever were stay behind the lines type of generals.

Cheers,
Marko
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Thalaba said Mar 25, 2013 18:00:12
The druid has been missing for several years and it transpires that he has been researching the 13 Treasures of Briton – essential to restoring the rule of the Old Gods and supplanting the Christian God.
Interesting - I guess the people now credited with owning them were merely their last owners (or perhaps most famous owners). But who owned them before those people, and where did they originate? Presumably with the old gods. That's fun. Is Excalibur one of the treasures in this setting?
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lawrence.whitaker said Mar 26, 2013 22:48:41
Yes, Excalibur is one of the treasures - the only one that remains 'discovered' until later in the saga.
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