Sunday, February 22, 2015

[Pendragon] The Great Pendragon Campaign: Year 530 - The Castle of Bones

“You may have conquered the upper world, Arthur, but the Underworld lies outside your realms. If you will not leave by your own will, then I will make you leave by force!”


Dave S.
And…Edie the Dog

The campaign's wiki can be found here.


  1. Spoiler-ish:

    When I read the above quote the Game of Thrones intro music is totally playing in my head.

  2. "[We're] all itching to get back to horror gaming after this. This has been a nice break, though, for sure." - A GM cackling to himself in foreshadowing last week.

    At least Gawain might be dead. That's a bright spot. Also there's probably a bunch of empty spots at the Round Table now!

    1. Our heroes didn't even get to the really horrific bits in Castle of Bones. My favorite is when they look down and there's a skeleton on the floor trying to stab their legs with a dagger, adding a fourth attacker each.

      Actually, the episode revealed a problem with CoB, I think - it's too likely to kill characters in the early rounds, so that they don't experience that sense of hopelessness as things just keep getting worse and worse. Ideally, it'd be a story in which character deaths are spread out over the course of the fight.

    2. I wholeheartedly agree with this. Generally-speaking, a 3 on 1 situation in Pendragon is certainly dire; in fact, I think the only time we've really experienced it thus far is when players willingly take on other players' enemies in order to facilitate something suitably epic.

      It makes little sense, mechanically, in this context, especially when the skeletons were immediately replaced if downed anyway.

      Though, meta-game speaking, we were running over on time, so perhaps Larkins truncated the encounter timeline a bit to get to the party death so we could all get home.

    3. "...perhaps Larkins truncated the encounter timeline a bit to get to the party death so we could all get home."

      Nope, the scenario is quite specific about having the PCs face three opponents every round. It even comes with a special sheet to help track hit points and status of the skeleton foes, broken down into three stat blocks per page (so, one page per player).

      I think what brought things to such a swift conclusion (and I do agree that I would've liked to see things last just a bit longer, as there were some really cool programmed events down the line) is that my d20 suddenly woke up at the same time the players started rolling rather anemically. Even on the skeletons who failed their Hate (British) passion rolls (and for whom I imposed a -5 penalty, even though I'm not sure skeletons could feel "disheartened," but I was trying to be at least a little generous), I still managed to roll really well on their skill rolls, oftentimes beating the opposing PC's roll, if they even made it at all. At least a couple of the crits I scored were unimpassioned skeletons rolling their modified Spear of 13 right on the nose!

    4. Maybe, although if this was meant to last 12 rounds I thought the fact that there were 7 survivors represents Arthur and 6 guests being let go symbolically in order to match the legend that they were sung earlier. I hope that Taliesin survived.

      Maybe the fight was an endurance match where every round some number of knights died, and then once you hit a specific threshold you managed to survive long enough that you could just be set free? Alternatively it might just be a TPK scenario because absorbing 4 attacks per round just seems unfeasible given that the Skeletons are likely passion-boosted.

      The only way you could (maybe) survive is if when you fight defensively you can choose which rolls get paired to which attacks, so that if you roll a crit you can choose to pair it against another crit. Although it seems the "correct" solution, rather appropriately, is to accept that you're going to die and make a suicide charge against the King to try and take him down with you.

    5. Ha no, never mind, my entire theory is wrong!

      You were critting quite a lot in that fight, but then you were originally rolling 18 attacks in the first round, so you'd expect a few. Still that seemed pretty good for a mere 13 skill. It also didn't help that the very first roll they have to make is one that essentially determines if they survive because otherwise they soak three unopposed attacks.

      Still, this was very much a Call of Cthulhu type adventure: Meet up with a charismatic figure, go into the netherworld, die ripped apart from skeletons, have an implication that your body will be resurrected and forced to serve him for all eternity. Good times.

      If Scott plays again (I hope he does!) hopefully this isn't how every adventure is going to go. I thought he played Sir Purell extremely well though.

    6. Taliesin did indeed survive. In fact, that was another point that might have come up had the fight lasted longer than four rounds for the players--an Awareness roll would've noticed that the bard was the only one not getting attacked! After the battle, he wrote an elegy, which I'll post below.

      The only survivors specified by the scenario are Arthur and Galigantis (who ends up rescuing Arthur when the king himself falls late in the fight--again, a detail we didn't get to see). The remaining five are left purposely vague on the off chance that one or more PCs survive. By default, then, they become part of the "magnificent seven."

    7. Also, I should clarify: the 13 skill was for the skeletons who missed their passion rolls. They have Spear 18 normally, so the ones who were impassioned had a 28 skill and were critting on 12 or better.

      And yes, quite agreed that it's a very Cthulhu-y scenario! It's available for free on Greg Stafford's Pendragon site, although it was originally intended for publication back in the 90s. That would have been something!

      We'd love to have Scott back, as well. We'll see what his schedule allows.

    8. I've been thinking about what it would take to survive this scenario. Say you have a weapon skill of about 30 (not impossible for 530). Now, if you crit a passion, I think your working skill would be 60, and then with a potential +10 for fighting defensively, you could be looking at a post-split skill of about 23 against each skeleton. 20 if you don't fight defensively. Now, if you're chivalrous, you're looking at 21 armor per hit, so you're probably okay unless you take a crit. And of course if you're knocked down, you're dead. Even if you were skill 40 (so effectively 30 against each), there's still a good chance you'd take a crit unopposed at some point. And this isn't counting the fourth guy who might attack you.

      It's hard to imagine the player knight who could accomplish that. If you were playing very strictly by the rules, a very high skill knight might be able to break the enemies' spears and then be good enough to keep them from escaping combat, but even that would take some serious luck,

  3. Don't worry about your Irish listeners. They can, after all, laugh themselves at the way in which you pronounce "Leinster," "Meath," "the Liffey," and (more understandably) "crannóg." :)

    Pendragon Ireland is ... odd. First, Stafford did unfortunately blunder into some racist tropes with a nasty history when he identified Ireland as the poorly run, ungovernable, weak kingdom that shows how lucky the PCs are to be in Logres (=England). I'm fairly certain that he'd have been more careful if he'd been dealing with cultural sensitivities that are more familiar in the US. (It is not too dissimilar from if one developed a setting in a mythologized version of 19th century North America and said that the point of Mexico in the setting was to show that only white Anglo-Saxon Protestants can be democratic - not quite as bad as that, perhaps, but in that territory.)

    Then Carnahan goes in the opposite direction in Pagan Shore, which is not exactly subtle about making Arthur and co. into the Anglo-Normans, who from Carnahan's robustly nationalist standpoint are pretty straightforward bad guys. (Least convincing denial in the history of role-playing game supplements: "This is not to rehearse old grievances.")

    Plus, Pagan Shore amplifies Pendragon's already incongruous historical/literary mishmash to godlike levels, and at the end of the day I'd probably simplify it to what's really needed and really fits with Arthurian romance.

    But Pagan Shore would be an indispensable resource for anyone trying to adapt Pendragon to play in a setting based on Irish mythology.

    1. To make it clear, I don't think Stafford remotely was aware that he was reinscribing, let alone meant to reinscribe, an existing (and once widespread) stereotype of the Irish as constitutionally unable to govern themselves, or how poisonous the history of that idea is.

    2. Agreed across the board!

      First of all, I was wincing every time I came across a proper noun--the mutilation!

      Secondly, definitely agree with you on Pagan Shore. A great supplement for a "Heroic Age" Irish campaign divorced from the Arthurian mythos, and that's about it. Probably the most disappointing Pendragon supplement, IMO.

      And thirdly, someone who has not exactly deep but certainly competent understanding of Anglo-Irish relations throughout the centuries, the establishment of the Pale and the installation of foreign overlords is one of the more depressing chapters in the GPC for all the reasons you point out.

      Still debating whether to include the whole "Cambrian War" chapter from Savage Mountains, which was explicitly modeled on Edward I's conquests.

    3. That's interesting. It prodded me to think about why I don't think the Cambrian War stuff is as problematic. Part of it is that the applicability to recent history is different. I wouldn't want to minimize (or maximize - it's none of my business) Welsh-nationalist concerns, and there definitely is an unfortunate history of negative stereotyping of the Welsh. But it's not implicated in a history of people killing each other in significant if not vast numbers over the last two centuries right up to living memory in quite the same way.

      But I think that the more important thing might be that the specific Pendragon context is different. You have the overarching Cymric vs. Saxon conflict as a more prominent element of the setting, and it complicates things. This is especially so in Stafford's version of the "historical Arthur" which is atypical in that it completely suppresses the usual motif of the historical Arthur as the "last defender of Roman civilization" in favor of Arthur as a representative of Celtic pre-Roman Britain.

    4. "I don't think the Cambrian War stuff is as problematic."

      Yeah, that's why I'm on the fence as well. With only half the group interested in military campaigning, it's probably a moot point anyway, but still...

  4. Wow, that was something else. You deserve that 1250 glory just for surviving that, never mind getting the Cauldron.

    But in any case, I think 531 marks the beginning of the real adventure period, so there should be good times ahead.

    And I gotta say, I'm pretty sure I know the tables you're using for Yearly Events, but when Ederne got that Friend roll, my mind just flashed to an extremely convoluted table where every possible permutation of rolls comes up "Burgher." Except maybe one line on Subtable 4Q that is "Gift of Journeyman."

    1. I think everyone's family should get 1250 Glory just for accompanying Arthur on his insane, poorly thought out "quest". I'm voting for the start of the Year of Disillusionment, but that's because I still want everyone to be rattling chains right now.

      Since Everyone's Dead Dave, does this mean we're going to be getting an entirely new generation of Knights next year? Maybe everyone's squires who came with them all take up arms, or will people be drawing from inside their families?

      As I believe it's a new period starting next year it would be interesting for everyone to start again, as it would drive home the comparisons and differences between starting out with Uther as an established ruler and Arthur as an established ruler.

    2. It's quite interesting how things lined up--we are indeed getting a new crop of knights next year from a variety of different sources. (Well, Des got a head start, but Leander's still fresh enough to qualify.) So this really will be a return to 485 in some ways, and quite well-observed about Arthur being in a similar point in his reign as Uther was then (bastard son and all!).

      And yeah, the next couple phases are all about High Adventure, and I've got a whole stack of fun scenarios I've been holding onto for this phase of the campaign. I'm pretty excited about it.

    3. Oh, and Max: Des has set up a food blog, which will be making its debut next session. I'll put in a link with the post.

    4. Jake: the insane, poorly thought out quest that ends in ridiculously extreme disaster is exactly what I love about Castle of Bones. There's an important strain in premodern literature that's about mourning the death of warriors who die in batttle to no obvious purpose, and it's good to have it represented. Pendragon's generational play means that you can do this in a way that you can't in most heroic fantasy settings, because the story goes on, and there are even specific characters who can mourn their dead parents.

      Also, it makes a nice counterpart to the assumptions of most Arthurian romance, in which the heroes embark on insanely dangerous acts without a second thought, and somehow it always works out OK (because that's just how amazing Lancelot/Gawain/whoever is). Here somebody sets out on a quest against impossible odds, and you know what: they actually are impossible odds.

    5. I can see what was going for here, and the relative ease with which Ireland was conquered by Britain is a really good counterpoint to the absolute curbstomping they received here. It had a lot of Call of Cthulhu undertones, and was perfectly exemplified by the quote that was chosen for this episode, since Arthur did try to overreach and got punished badly for it.

      It was a hopeless battle, but it wasn't an unfair one. The skeletons had passions that they rolled, and it boosted their skill so that they seemed to crit about 1 in every 6 rolls, which when fighting 3 on 1 makes it really deadly. And this is a story about legacy, so this was another one of those instances in your family history when everyone's father died at once.

  5. This is interesting: re-reading the Glory awards for the scenario, simply going on the quest is worth 1,250 points! So everyone who went will be getting a big fat posthumous award at least...

    1. It's one of those points on which fairness trumps the rules, really - since Arthur failed, and you normally get Glory for successful achievements, in principle you shouldn't really get much, to be consistent with other awards. Just "witnessing a famous event" sort of Glory.

      But come on: who's going to put the players through that and not give them some sort of compensation?

  6. Taliesin's elegy; this is a free translation of the ancient poem “Preiddeu Annwvyn” from the Book of Taliesin. It’s one of the earliest mentions of Arthur in literature, in fact. I snipped the first verse because it references an NPC I decided not to use in the scenario...

    The Spoils of the Castle of Bones

    I have gained fame because my song was heard
    In the Fortress whose walls face the four winds.
    My voice echoed from within the Cauldron
    To fill the whole of the Castle of Bones.
    Nine maidens’ breath kindled the fire
    Underneath of the Cauldron we thought we desired.
    A ridge of fine pearls encircled its rim.
    The coward will not find any cooked food therein.
    Three times Prydwen was filled with men for the assault.
    None but seven returned from the Four Corner Fort.

    Hospitality of a kind was offered therein.
    Maiden freely served us the fine honey wine
    That flashed invitingly from deep golden cups,
    Blurring our vision, and slurring our speech.
    Our limbs responded sluggishly when they sought spear and sword
    We had sworn to the service of Arthur, our lord.
    Three times Prydwen was filled with men for the assault.
    None but seven returned from the Fort of Intoxication.

    As six thousand warriors our enemies seemed
    When the hospitality we received was rudely withdrawn.
    Their silent attack unnerved the bravest of men
    Those who had lived long after their death
    Thanks to the Cauldron that brought them back.
    To live in a half-world, far from the warmth
    Of the sun and the light and the world of the living.
    Three times Prydwen was filled with men for the assault.
    None but seven returned from the Fort as Cold as a Grave.

    It was then Arthur fell, overwhelmed by sheer numbers —
    Greater than those faced at blood-soaked Badon.
    His bodyguard slain and borne down by dark hands,
    Arthur seemed doomed to die, lost in that place.
    Galegantis, ignoring the danger he placed himself in
    Took Excalibur from the floor and defended his King.
    Regaining his feet, the High King fought his way out.
    Three times Prydwen was filled with men for the assault.
    None but seven returned from that well-hidden Fort.

    I do not praise those who condemn the attempt
    From the safety of the hearth or castles of kings.
    I have no time for the crabbed complaints of monks
    Bent by years over books that limit their lives.
    My song is for men who will dare the unknown
    And challenge their world for everlasting fame.
    I sing not for myself. I was there to record.
    I sing for King Arthur and his glorious men.
    Those who three times filled Prydwen for the assault.
    And the seven returning gloried in fame.

  7. The true moral of this session: