Let’s Read: The Decameron: Part I

What is this? Why am I doing this? You should have read the introduction!

INTRODUCTION TO THE FIRST DAY

Boccaccio starts by addressing his presumed audience, us “fairest ladies,” concerned that due to our compassionate and sensitive nature, may have difficultly of recounting details of the plague, we might end up in “an endless torrent of tears and sobbing.” But he assures us that once we get through said torrent, the reading will bring us great pleasure, using a spate of metaphors lifted straight from Dante.

He then describes the events of the Black Death on Florence, to set the scene for the tale to come. Some choice excerpts:

“But whatever its cause, it had originated some years earlier in the East, where it had claimed countless lives before it unhappily spread westward, growing in strength as it swept relentlessly on from one place to the next.”

“All sick persons were forbidden entry, and numerous instructions were issued for safeguarding the people’s health, but all to no avail.”

“For in the early spring of the year we have mentioned, the plague began, in a terrifying and extraordinary manner, to make its disastrous effects apparent.”

“But what made this pestilence even more severe was that whenever those suffering from it mixed with people who were still unaffected, it would rush upon these with the speed of a fire racing through dry or oily substances that happened to come within its reach. Nor was this the full extent of its evil, for not only did it infect healthy persons who conversed or had any dealing with the sick… but it also seemed to transfer the sickness to anyone touching the clothes or other objects which had been handled or used by the victims.”

Boccaccio informs us of a “remarkable story,” that he would not have believed himself unless he had seen it personally, that of two pigs who chewed on the rags of a plague victim and dropped dead within minutes. We should be reminded that Boccaccio is an entertainer and not to be taken as historical fact.

He goes into the reactions people had to the plague, isolation and moderation, revelry in the face of destruction, or fleeing as far into the countryside as they could. But pretty much nothing worked.

The people who fell ill depended on their servants (here’s his upper-class viewpoint: servants don’t really count as people), and since so many servants died off, the ones that remain were either ill-trained or price gougers. Also women had to employ male servants, which led to a decrease in their chastity, due to increased comfort disrobing around men.

He talks about the sheer number of corpses, the greed of the corpse handlers, and that they were dumped in mass graves at whichever church was available.

And so on. It paints a pretty dark picture… but according to our translator, it was actually based on plague descriptions from the 8th century Historia Langobardorum. Again, Boccaccio’s presumed eye-witness account is anecdote and stolen history.

We go on to meet our protagonists. Again, it is presented as a true story, relayed to him by a trusty source. Seven young ladies meet at the deserted church of Santa Maria Novella. (See the assumed wordplay in the name of the Church, the word Novella, the form of the work itself.)

Boccaccio had previously written another work, the Comedia Delle Ninfe Florentine, something of a proto-Decameron, featuring seven Nymphs, who shared some of the same names. It is generally assumed that the seven ladies represent the Seven Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude, Justice, Charity, Hope, and Faith. (Commentators disagree on who precisely represents what.)

The seven ladies, it happened, were all known to each other, and were unmarried and between eighteen and twenty-seven years of age. (Both multiples of 9, another lucky number. See Dante’s obsession with the number nine in his Vita Nuova, the poetry he wrote as a young idealist, as opposed to his more famous work, written as a jaded old man.) To be unmarried at that age is pretty unlikely, but contributes to the fairy-tale feel of the framing story.

“All were intelligent, gently bred, fair to look upon, graceful in bearing, and charmingly unaffected.”

Boccaccio assures us they were real people, and he could tell you their actual names, but declines to do so because of the scandalous nature of some of the tales and gossip told by and to them, so gives them pseudonyms based on their character.

(Consider this device as used by Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson is always referring to his cases with pseudonyms, for risk of offending or revealing controversy.)

The names of the ladies, and the Translator’s suggestion as to the meanings, in order from oldest to youngest (as introduced by Boccaccio):

Pampinea: “full of vigor”

Fiammetta: “little flame”

Filomena: “the beloved/lover of song”

Emilia: “she who allures”

Lauretta: Diminutive form of Laura, name of Petrarch’s beloved

Neifile: “Newly enamored” (possibly a reference to the Dolce Stl Novo literary movement, a name coined by Dante.)

Elissa: An alternate name for Queen Dido of Carthage, perhaps meaning “Oath of God”

(Which makes Elissa, Neifile and Lauretta references to the works of Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch, respectively.)

After some prayers and collective sighing, Pampinea in a lengthy speech suggests that instead of idling about, they should all go together to a single place and hang out together, sending whatever servants are still alive ahead to do the actual work of setting up the place. And then everyone clapped.

Then Filomena “being more prudent than others” says that they need to find some men:

“You must remember that we are all women… [and women] are not the most rational of creatures.” She lists a litany of the character failings of women.

Elissa brings up some objections, not about whether or not it is true, but rather the practicality of finding men of suitable character during the plague, who could serve as boon companions without inciting scandal.

Fortunately for everyone, right then three young gentlemen arrive, each of them a paramour of one of the seven ladies.

Their names, and their meanings:

Panfilo: “all loving”

Filostrato: “defeated by love”

Dioneo: This is a masculization of “Dione,” the mother of Aphrodite.

According to scholar Victoria Kirkham, these fellows represent Reason, Anger, and Lust, which seems legit.

It doesn’t take long to sell the three gentlemen on the plan, and soon all the preparations are made, and the next day they set out to their destination, a palace in the countryside. Boccaccio gives a long description of the area and the palace itself, which again has a sort of fairy-tale essence, surrounded by picturesque wilderness.

“And on their arrival the company discovered, to their no small pleasure, that the place had been cleaned from top to bottom, the beds in the rooms were made up, the whole house was adorned with seasonable flowers of every description, and the floors had been carpeted with rushes.”

To keep some semblance of order, Pampinea is unanimously elected queen, and the custom is established that at the end of each day, leadership will be handed off to another member of the party. She delegates all the collected servants to various tasks, and then lets everyone wander about the nearby meadows, singing, dancing, waving garlands about, etc.

After lunch and an afternoon siesta, Pampinea gathers everyone and suggests that they spend the hottest part of the afternoon telling stories, each person sharing one. And thus, we get to the good stuff.

FIRST STORY (PANFILO)

All these stories have a short description before them, which quite succinctly sums up the tale, including the ending. I have chosen to omit these. I guess the concept of spoiler warnings hadn’t been invented yet.

Panfilo’s story starts with a monologue praising God and His marvelous works, and says that he will tell a story so astonishing the listener will be super impressed with God or something.

The story involves Musciatto Franzesi, and his associate Ser Cepperello. Franzesi is a real person, and lots of these stories feature real people, sometimes as the main character of the story, of as a jumping off point, again with the effect of suggesting that these are real events that actually happened.

Anyway, Franzesi has a number of business affairs to attend to, and has to delegate them to various agents, which for most of the tasks is easy enough. The trouble is he has some business in Burgundy, and as Boccaccio tells us, the Burgundians are all dishonest untrustworthy villains. He needs someone just as villainous to do business with them, to make sure he doesn’t get swindled. So he settles on Ser Cepperello, who owes him several favors.

Ser Cepperello developed the nickname Ciappelletto in Paris, which means ‘little log,’ which is probably a dick joke.

Thus starts a lengthy accounting of Ciappelletto’s various misdeeds and sins: a forger, a giver of false testimony for fun and profit, murderer, blasphemer, a thief, a glutton, and a promiscuous bisexual:

“Of women he was a s fond as dogs are fond of a good stout stick; in their opposite, he took greater pleasure than the most depraved man on earth.”

Panfilo sums up: “He was perhaps the worst man ever born.”

Ciappelletto heads to Burgundy, where he stays with two Florentine moneylenders, however he comes down with a fatal illness. The brothers are concerned what to do: if they kick him out they will be known for refusing a sick man hospitality, but if Ciappelletto dies in their house, eventually the locals will discover who he was and how depraved he was, and run the two Florentines out of town. What to do?

No problem, says Ciappelletto, who was eavesdropping. He has no problem giving a false confession- he’s done so many sins, what’s one more to cap off his life? “So go and bring me the holiest and ablest friar you can find, if there is such a one, and leave everything to me.”

They are doubtful, but go and find the friar, who meets with Ciappelletto, and asks when his last confession was, “who had never been to confession in his life,” states that he tries to go to confession at least once a week, preferably more, and that his practice in Confession is to confess all of his sins over his whole life. He asks the friar to question him regarding the sins he might have committed.

Thus, he gives confession: he is a virgin, but does not want to be seen as prideful in admitting so, when asked if he has committed gluttony, he admits to being a glutton, since while fasting on bread and water he would sometimes have a craving “for those dainty little wild herb salads that women eat when they go away to the country” and drank too much water.

For avarice he regrets that he is a merchant by trade to sustain himself, and gives the rest to charity, but worries it is not enough. For wrath, he gets angry at sinners. He once spoke ill of a man who beat his wife. He was a liar: he once discovered he had been overpaid by four pennies, and was never able to track down the other party to give them back, and ended up giving them to a beggar.

And finally, his greatest sin of all, which he worries he will not be forgiven for: as a child, he cursed his mother.

Throughout this whole thing, the friar assures him that his sins are not so bad, but Ciappelletto insists they are.

Once he dies, Ciappelletto is taken to the church, and given extreme unction and burial with honors. The friar gives a eulogy praising the life of Ciappelletto, urging everyone to live by his example. After that, the people of the town began to venerate Ciappelletto as a saint, and then something very extraordinary happened: prayers made in the name of Saint Ciappelletto were granted, and miracles performed.

Panfilo ends his story with a reminder of the glory of God: so great is He that he answers prayers, even if they are addressed to a false Saint who is surely burning in hell.

SECOND STORY (NEIFILE)

Neifile tells us another story of God’s glory. She tells us of two Parisians, Jehannot de Chevigny, a Christian merchant, and his friend Abraham, a Jewish merchant, both men honest and worthy.

Jehannot is concerned about the soul of his friend Abraham, who is such a good man that it would be a shame for him to go to hell because of his faith. Won’t Abraham convert to Christianity? Abraham rebuffs this. Their discussions go on, and eventually Abraham says, perhaps driven by Jehannot’s persistence, that if you want me to convert to Christianity, I’m going to have to go see Rome, and observe the behavior of the Pope and Cardinals before he makes his decision.

Jehannot does not like this condition, for Rome is a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Why go all the way to Rome? It’s so far, and no one likes boats, and this is Paris, there are plenty of canons here. We’ll go on a pilgrimage later, it’ll be fun. A road trip! How about it?

Abraham is insistent, and soon sets out to Rome. Jehannot despairs: “He was quite certain that Abraham would never become a Christian, once he had seen the court of Rome.”

Abraham witnesses all sorts of depravity in Rome, greedy and lusty priests, with pretty much no sin beyond them. He returns to Paris and his friend Jehannot, and reports what he has seen.

“As far as I can judge, it seems to me that your pontiff, and all of the others too, are doing their level best to reduce the Christian religion to nought and drive it from the face of the earth, whereas they are the very people who should be its foundation and support.”

However since despite of all this Christianity is waxing and Judaism is waning, it is clear that the only possible explanation is that Christianity is a more genuine religion. Thus, Abraham agrees to convert and be baptized, much to Jehannot’s astonishment.

THIRD STORY (FILOMENA)

The story of Abraham the Jew inspires to tell Fiolmena a story she had heard of a Jew named Melchizedek.

The tale concerns the Muslim leader Saladin, who needing vast sums of money to fight a war or something, thinks of Melchizedek the moneylender in Alexandria. Saladin does not think he could convince the Jew to part with the money, and is loathe to just take it by force. So he needs to establish a pretext. He visits Melchizedek and puts to him the following question: “which of the three laws, whether the Jewish, the Saracen [Islamic], or the Christian, you deem to be truly authentic.”

Melchizedek sees through the trap: no matter what he answers, Saladin can claim some outrage. So he tells a story (a tale within a tale within a tale), of a rich man, who had a beautiful ring passed down from son to son. And eventually one of his descendants had three worthy sons, so commissioned two more rings, just like the first. And he answers that the three faiths are like the three rings.

Saladin is so impressed by this he admits his true purpose in coming, and Melchizedek gives him the money, which he ends up paying him back, plus many gifts, and the two become super best friends.

FOURTH STORY (DIONEO)

Keep an eye on that Dioneo.

He tells us of a monastery, of a monk “whose freshness and vitality neither fasts nor vigils could impair.” This young monk takes a stroll and meets a young woman. “No sooner did he see her, than he was fiercely assailed by carnal desire.”

The monk propositions the woman, and they sneak into his cell and have wild sex. Unfortunately the Abbot happens to be passing the cell at that moment and listens in, and decides he’s going to teach this monk a lesson. Unknown to the Abbot, the monk heard the shuffling of feet, and took the opportunity to look out a peephole and saw the Abbot. He knew he was going to be in deep trouble. He thinks up a plan, and says to the woman, I’m going to sneak you out of here, stay here for a bit and stay quiet.

He goes to the Abbott and says I’m going out, I didn’t finish my woodcutting this morning, here’s my key for you to hang onto. Once the monk heads out, the Abbot decides he’s going to confront the girl. He unlocks the monk’s cell, and sees the young woman, and is filled with his own carnal urges, and begins consoling the now quite upset woman, and then one thing leads to another and they have sex.

But the monk didn’t leave at all, he circled back around and watched through the peephole the whole time. So when the monk and Abbot meet back up, the Abbot is ready to give the monk a “a jolly good scolding and have him locked up, so that he alone would possess the prize they had captured.” But then the monk delivers a bon mot regarding the Abbot’s chosen sex position (cowgirl, “monks have women to support, as well as fasts and vigils.”) So the Abbot forgives the monk and swears him to secrecy.

And after that? “Then they slipped the girl out unobtrusively, and we can only assume they afterwards brought her back at regular intervals.”

FIFTH STORY (FIAMMETTA)

Before going into Fiammetta’s story, Boccaccio tells us that the ladies all smirked and laughed at Dioneo’s story, but once it was done rebuked him to indicate such a story wasn’t fit for mixed company. I’m sure Dioneo won’t make that mistake again!

Fiammetta’s story opens with a proverb: “Whereas men, if they are very wise, will always seek to love ladies of higher station than their own, women, if they are very discerning, will know how to guard against accepting the advances of a man who is of more exalted rank.” In a nutshell: men should be looking to marry up, so beware the man who is looking down.

King Phillip Augustus II of France hears of the Marquis of Montferrat and his legendarily beautiful wife, becomes deeply enamored with her. He must see her! (The translator notes that the actual Marchioness at this time, Giulia of Austria was over seventy years old, probably not the type to inspire any great legends of beauty.)

The King makes a plan to visit Montferrat while the Marquis is away on crusade, planning on stopping in Genoa to pay her a visit. He sends a message ahead, telling the Marchioness that he is looking forward to visiting her. She thinks about why he would want to visit in her husband’s absence, and comes to the obvious conclusion: he is courting her. So she comes up with a plan.

“On meeting her for the first time, he was greatly amazed to find that she was even more beautiful, intelligent, and gentle-mannered than he had been led to believe,” and is even more enamored. She honors him with a great feast, but all the dishes are chicken. The King is surprised, isn’t there any meat here that isn’t chicken?

“Madam, is it only hens that flourish in these parts, and not a cock?” (Is that a dick joke in Italian? Everyone loves a good dick joke.)

The Marchioness delivers a (we are told) searing retort, the significance of which escapes me.

“No, my lord, but our women, whilst they may differ slightly from each other in their rank and the style of their dress, are made no differently here from elsewhere.”

From this reply (somehow) the King realizes that this woman is beyond reproach, and halts his advances.

I don’t get it.

SIXTH STORY (EMILIA)

Apparently everyone else got it, because Fiammetta’s story was a big hit, and inspires Emilia to tell her tale: “I likewise will describe a stinging rebuke, but one which was administered by an honest layman to a grasping friar, with a gibe no less amusing than it was laudable.”

She tells us of a Florentince Franciscan, a member of the Inquisition, however rather than hunting down heretics, this Friar was more interested in accusing the wealthy of heresy and extorting money from them. This friar hears of a merchant, who while drunk boasts that his wine is “of such a quality that Christ himself would have drunk it.”

The friar hears about this, and imagines all the money he could extort from this guy, and confronts him, accusing him of heresy. The man arranges for some gold to be paid, and the torture he is threatened with is downgraded to wearing a crusader’s cross and having to attend mass every morning and then report to the inquisitor.

On one of these mornings, he is particularly taken by a line from one of the verses of the Gospel, “for every one you shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life.” (Matthew 19:29) You get what you give.

(This is one of the lines prosperity gospel preaches use to convince you to send them money, after all, you get back a hundred fold what you give!)

After mass, he meets with the Franciscan, who asks him if he has any questions about what he heard during mass. He says he does: he quotes the line and asks if it is true. The friar says it is. The man recounts that he frequently sees the Franciscans giving away bowls of vegetable water to the poor, and so they should be careful: “So if you are going to receive a hundred in the next world for every one you have given, you will have so much of the stuff that you will all drown in it.”

The corrupt friar is pissed, but the other friars who overhear think this is hilarious, much to the wicked friar’s reproach.

This one is still pretty hard to follow, but kind of makes sense. The vegetable water is hardly fit for human consumption, and the friars have so much wealth that they should be able to do better charity than that. Or maybe the mental image of drowning in vegetable water is just supposed to be funny.

SEVENTH STORY (FILOSTRATO)

Filostrato, employing the metaphor of an archer hitting a moving target, suggests that its easy to make fun of a corrupt friar for being miserly, but harder to chide a great prince, so says he will one-up Emilia. As a segue it works, but I feel like Filostrato comes off as kind of a dick.

All right, Filostrato’s story concerns Can Grande della Scala, a wealthy prince of Verona. Can Grande had taken in Dante after his exile from Florence, and was memorialized by him in the Paradisio for his generosity and military prowess. Filostrato calls him “one of the most outstanding and munificent princes that Italy has known since the Emperor Frederick the Second.”

Can Grande is hosting a festival, at which he plans to give out lavish gifts, but at the last minute he changes his mine, and turns everyone away, and gives them a token gift. Everyone but poor traveling Bergamino, known for his wit and conversation. (Why? Filostrato doesn’t tell us. Maybe there weren’t enough to go around, and Bergamino was at the end of the gift line.) Bergamino figures that if he stays in Verona long enough, Can Grande is bound to give him a gift, so he books a room at an inn. Can Grande hears about this, and feels it would be wasteful to give Bergamino a gift.

Bergamino waits at the inn, hoping for a message from the prince, but with his entourage of servants and horses, is starting to run up expenses. He bought with him three fancy robes so he would fit in at court, and has to sell them, one at a time to cover his expenses.

Some time after selling the third one, but before the money runs out, he goes to a restaurant, and he sees none other than Can Grande della Scala sitting at a table, looking right at him. Can Grande, being a dick, asks Bergamino, why the long face?

Bergamino, on the spot, invents a story, (another tale within a tale within a tale), regarding Primas, a canon and well-known poet. Primas is in Paris and intends to pay a visit to the Abbot of Cluny (a very wealthy monastery). If he sets out at dawn, he should arrive in time for breakfast. But what if he gets lost, or is otherwise delayed? He decides the prudent thing to do would be to bring three loaves of bread.

Primas arrives at the monastery for breakfast, and was impressed at the whole place. Breakfast is about to be served, and the Abbot spies Primas, dressed like a scruffy hermit, and decides he doesn’t like the look of the fellow. No one else nearby knows who he is, so he orders breakfast put off until Primas leaves. But he doesn’t want to be seen refusing hospitality, so no one says anything to Primas, they just wait for him to go away on his own.

Meanwhile, no one else is getting to eat either. The story does not address how they felt about this, but I’ll bet they were pretty pissed.

Primas starts to get hungry, and remembers he’s got those three loaves. So he eats one loaf of bread, and still no sign of the Abbot, starts on the second.

The Abbot gets word of this, and is first angry that this hobo is here, having brought his own food, but then later reflects that he is acting like a miser, and has been much more generous in the past. He wonders if the visitor is actually someone important.

At this point, the Abbot needs to know who the visitor is, and he finds out its the famous poet and canonist Primas, here to confirm rumors of the Abbot’s generosity. The Abbot, feeling chastised, feeds Primas well, clothes him well, gives him a horse and saddle, some money, and the freedom of his household. The end.

Can Grande sees that this is a very thin metaphor for his own situation, and realizes that he too must act like the Abbot, so similarly gives to Bergamino: settling his debts, giving him one of his own fancy robes, a new horse and saddle, money, and took him into his own household.

Okay, I got to give it to Filostrato. That was better than Emilia’s story.

EIGHTH STORY (LAURETTA)

Lauretta tells the story of Ermino de’ Grimaldi. The Grimaldis were a real Genoese family, Ermino is fictitious. Ermino de’ Grimaldi is the richest man in Italy, and a greedy miser who despite his wealth dresses in rags. Because of this he has been dubbed Ermino Skinflint.

Into Genoa comes Guiglielmo Borsiere (which Dante places in hell for his crime of sodomy), who Lauretta introduces as a “worthy courtier,” then delivers a diatribe about how courtiers today aren’t as honorable as back in the good old days, which comes out of nowhere and then just sort of peters out.

Guiglielmo pays Ermino a visit, and despite being a miser, Ermino Skinflint is a gracious host. He shows Guiglielmo around a splendid home (apparently Skinflint’s one vice is home décor), and the single unpainted wall. He says he wants to paint it with something no one has ever seen before, and wants to know if Guiglielmo has any suggestions.

No, but he can suggest something Ermino has never seen. Ermino is curious to hear what this could be.

“Let Generosity be painted there.” OH SNAP

And then the typical denouement: Ermino does a 180 and becomes the most generous man in Genoa. This story is short and sweet, and has my favorite zinger from the first day.

NINTH STORY (ELISSA)

A woman from Gascony is returning from a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and stops in Cyprus, recently conquered by Christians. She is attacked by a band of ruffians, and afterwards, decides she is going straight to the top: she’s going to bring this matter before the King.

Don’t bother, the locals tell her, he’s such a total loser, not only does he not enforce his own laws, he’ll let anyone badmouth him as much as they like. It’s fun. Let’s say some bad things about the King.

The Gascon woman is disheartened, but pursues and audience with the King. When she meets him, she asks the following:

Rather than to pursue redress for the attack in his lands, “I beg you to instruct me how you manage to endure the wrongs which, as I am led to understand, are inflicted on upon you, so that I might learn from you to bear my own with patience.”

Realizing that he has been a chump, the King resolves to be a chump no more, and starts by making sure the wrongs committed are “avenged most harshly.”

TENTH STORY (PAMPINEA)

Finally, our dear queen’s story for the day. Pampinea speaks of zingers, and how great they are.

“These, being brief, are much better suited to women than to men, as it is more unseemly for a woman to speak at inordinate length, when this can be avoided, than it is for a man.”

How anyone ever thought Boccaccio was a feminist is beyond me.

After some more ranting, Pampinea tells us the tale of Master Alberto of Bologna, an elderly doctor, and Malgherida de’ Ghisolieri, a beautiful widow. (Master Alberto may be supposed to be actual person Alberto de’ Zancari.

Master Alberto is old, but not too old to feel the flames of love. He catches a glimpse of Malgherida at a feast, and resolves to catch a glimpse of her. He makes sure to pass by her house as many times a day as possible until he sees her. Romantic, or stalker? You be the judge.

Malgherida and the women of her household learn of that, and decide they’re going to make fun of old Alberto. The next time they see Alberto, the other ladies invite him in, and ask him how he’s in love with Malgherida. Doesn’t he know she has suitors much younger and handsome than him?

(Malgherida seems to be present, since Alberto’s reply is addressed to her, even though its the other women who are doing the asking.)

Alberto says that while old men might be “naturally deficient in the powers required for lovemaking, they do not necessarily lack a ready will, or a just appreciation of what should be loved. On the contrary, in this respect their longer experience gives them an advantage over the young.”

He then relates a story about how women eat lupines and leeks incorrectly. (This has the feel of innuendo for something, possibly blowjobs, but ultimately its lost in translation.)

And since you’re so bad at eating leeks, what do you know? Maybe you would take an old man as a lover.

Malgherida is much reproached, and admits Alberto’s wisdom. “And therefore, saving my honour, you are free to ask of me what you will, and regard it as yours.”

And then he turns her down! He takes his leave of her. Total power move.

CONCLUSION OF FIRST DAY

So despite Pampinea not proscribing a theme, there is a common thread in all of these, a reversal of expectations, due to quick thinking and wit on the part of the protagonist. (The story of Abraham the Jew maybe not so much, but the ending is definitely the opposite of what is expected.) I was also quite amused by the stories that purport to tell the glory of God and the church, then show something completely opposite.

Pampinea decrees that for the next day, she is going to turn over her crown to Filomena, who will be queen on day two. She says that she will not change any of the major arrangements put into place by Pampinea, except that from now on, each person will submit a topic the night before, so the storytellers have time to prepare a good tale.

“Let each of us, then, if you have no objection, make it our purpose to take as our theme those who after suffering a series of misfortunes are brought to a state of unexpected happiness.” No doubt some rags to riches (or riches to rags to riches) stories are ahead.

Everyone agrees to this, except Dioneo. He wants a special privilege that he be allowed to talk about anything he wants, and in exchange, he is willing to always be the last person to speak. Everyone else sees no downsides to giving Dioneo these privileges. I’m sure he won’t abuse them at all.

After dinner there is dancing, and Emilia sings a song, about how beautiful her own reflection is and that no one else can shape up. Her companions are a little uneasy about the song, but at least it has a catchy chorus!

Let’s Read the Decameron, Part 0: Introductory Notes, and Author’s Prologue

Let’s Read The Decameron

Part 0: Introductory Notes, and Author’s Prologue

Giovanni Boccaccio wrote the Decameron in the wake of the Black Plague. Boccaccio was the third best poet/writer of 14th century Italy, and the Decameron is probably his most famous work. (And man, this guy wrote a lot.)

So, what is this, exactly? The Decameron is the story of ten people, seven women and three men, who in the wake of the Black Plague, take refuge and entertain each other by telling each other ten stories a day over ten stories (hence the ‘Deca’ in Decameron). Chaucer was a huge Boccaccio fanboy, hence the framework of the Canterbury Tales. (Seriously, many of his other works are retellings of other Boccaccio works.) Boccaccio was certainly not the first person to do the whole tales within a tale, but the Decameron is one of the trope makers.

Why do this? I trust the topic of people sitting inside in fear of the plague, telling each other stories because they have too much time on their hands is not too on the nose.

Beyond that though: it’s a transitional work, written during a transitional time. Boccaccio wrote during the last days of the Middle Ages, with the Renaissance on the way, and we can see some of the attitudes of the Renaissance in his work. It is also a work of unabashed popular fiction, in prose, rather than the poetry of Petrarch and Dante. This is a time when Novella meant New, not ‘a story that is exactly the wrong length to find a paying fiction market for.’ Trust me, no one is going to accuse the Decameron of being Novella-Length.

The edition I’m reading, by the way, is the Penguin Classics version, translated by G. H. McWilliam. Apparently there are lots of different translations, McWilliam takes pride in his, but I get the impression that he’s not really a snob about it or anything, he just really loves the Decameron and is enamored with your pedestrian attempt to convert 14th century Florentine slang into meaningful prose.

Ok, let’s dive in. Let’s get through this Preface to the Second Edition… a few interesting anecdotes in here, and then onto the Translator’s Introduction…

Wait, how long is this? The Introduction is a hundred and forty four pages long. Fuck.

Am I the only person who reads these? I always feel tempted to skip them, but there are plenty of reasons not to. For example, they explain a lot of the historical context behind the author and the text. All that stuff you read up above? I cribbed that from the intro. Thanks, translator dude.

But man, this is one long intro. I picked another book off my shelf, Hildegard of Bingen, Selections from Her Writings, and it is one hundred and forty five pages long. Just one page longer. (Though the intro to the Decameron has a much more extensive Bibliography.)

This introduction is so long, I needed a bookmark to get through it. In fact, while reading, one of my cats ran up and snatched my bookmark up in his mouth and ran off with it.

Another thing about these introductions to classics, beyond just historical context and summarizing key points of critical analysis, is the basic plot summary they provide. Now normally I’d say “Spoiler Alert!” (technically, the statute of limitations on spoilers for classic* literature is long passed, but it’s always new to someone). But oftentimes, having a basic plot outline is useful for even understanding what it is you’re reading, since the prose can get pretty wordy and allegorical.

(*Classic literature, as opposed to Classical Literature, which is Roman or earlier. The Boccaccio is old, but it’s still about a thousand years too late to be Classical. If Boccaccio was composing music though, and who’s to say he didn’t, he’d be about four hundred years too early for it to be Classical Music.)

I’ll bring in points from the introduction when and if they become relevant, but here’s the cliff’s notes:

Boccaccio was bastard son of a rich merchant. He failed as a banker and as a canon lawyer, so he became a writer instead. He spent a lot of time in Paris. He was a fanboy of Dante and a student of Petrarch. He wrote a lot of stuff, but the Decameron was the big one.

My mental image of him is John Rhys-Davies as DaVinci from that one episode of Star Trek: Voyager, even though he didn’t actually look anything like that.

It’s hard to say how much of the stories in the Decameron are traditional folk tales being collected for the first time, and how many are inventions of Boccaccio. Some of both, probably. He had previously written versions of a number of the stories involved, including the characters of the framing story.

It needs to be stressed that like the Arthurian tales, this is popular fiction, meant for mass consumption for entertainment. It’s chock full of sex and violence and naughty priests, the sort of thing that medieval audiences really go wild for. It’s so chock full of sex that our translator assures us that only about a quarter of the tales involve adulterous women. (And the emphasis is always on the woman. Which is a bit odd, since it takes two to adulter, but there’s your double standard.) But we can look forward to all kinds of genres, especially humor and a whole day devoted to gory tales of horror.

The triple themes of the book are established as Love, Fortune, and Intelligence, though its worth noting that to Boccaccio love and lust are the same, and by Intelligence his tales generally champion cunning and wit. In the Prologue, Boccaccio capitalizes both Love and Fortune (he doesn’t mention Intelligence, at least not yet.)

One last fun fact between we get to the Prologue: Boccaccio’s subtitle for the Decameron is Il Principe Galeotto, or The Prince Galehaut.

So what? Who’s this Galehaut? Galehaut was an Arthurian figure (not to be confused with sanitly Galahad), who was a half-giant and enemy of King Arthur. He is going to crush Arhtur’s army, but is so impressed by Lancelot that he surrenders and becomes super best friends and maybe lovers with Lancelot. When Lancelot goes missing, Galehaut dies of grief. Later, Lancelot has himself buried next to Galehaut.

Anyway, in Book 5 of the Inferno, Dante meets Francesca and Paolo in the second circle of Hell, for their crime of extreme lust, trapped in a whirlwind, doomed to forever chase each other and never to meet. Francesca tells Dante that they read of the Book of Galahaut and became so incensed with lust and passion that they had to adulterize.

(My copy of the Divine Comedy, translated by Henry Francis Clay, just says “For our delight we read of Lancelot… All trembling kissed. The book and writer both/Were love’s purveyors. In its leave that day/We read no more.” I looked in a different copy of the Divine Comedy, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow “One day we reading were for our delight/Of Lancelot… Kissed me upon the mouth a palpitating/Galeotto was the book and he who wrote it/That day no farther did we read within.”)

So what does Boccaccio’s subtitle mean? Is the book supposed to be representative of love (or lust)? Is this Boccaccio’s version of self-insert fan-fiction, suggesting that The Decameron is the book (that hadn’t been written yet) that so inspired Francesca and Paolo to the throes of passion? Or is it just a pun on Galeotto, slang for Pimp? Is is all of these?

THE PROLOGUE

Boccaccio starts off his prologue with a proverb, tradition in medieval work, similar to a thesis statement. (Readers of Austen are familiar with a classic example from a much later century.) Here’s this one:

“To take pity on people in distress is a human quality which every man and woman should possess, but it is especially requisite in those who have once needed comfort, and found it in others.”

From there, he dovetails into dedicating the book to his anonymous and noble lady love, who he has unrequitedly loved from afar, tragically separate due to the difference in their ranks, and how he eventually got over it. Some historians think his lady love was Maria d’Aquino, daughter of King Robert of Naples, once Boccaccio’s patron. Other historians think Maria d’Aquino never actually existed. In any case, it’s a classic trope, the medieval equivalent of “I have a girlfriend, but she goes to a different school/lives in another state/is Canadian.”

He goes on to say that he got over it, and wrote this book, specifically for the entertainment of lovesick women, because women are especially prone to lovesickness. (So far, Boccaccio strikes me as something of a medieval White Knight, trying to prove how woke and feminist he is while saying m’lady and complaining that Maria d’Aquino won’t have wild adulterous sex with him. Based on reading the translators notes, I can tell you that historians have mixed opinions regarding Boccaccio’s stances.)

Anyway, he goes on to tell us we can look forward to the hundred tales, told over ten days by “a worthy band of seven ladies and three young men.” He promises pleasure, excitement, succor and diversion, and hopefully we all learn a few lessons along the way.

And then… oh the Prologue is done already. It was just three pages.

Next: The Decameron, day one.

Games I Played in 2019

My recordkeeping was not great this year. I didn’t take very good notes on the cons I attended: Forge, Gencon, or Gamehole. I chalk this up to a generally frustrating and draining year. Fortunately, looking back, I see a number of enjoyable sessions. As usual, I have likely missed a one-shot or two (or three.)

Apportionment: Ran this at Forge, and as one of two Combine members of the Apportionment Committee, we divided up Sirai into 3 nation-states in a way that somehow all 5 represenatives were satisfied with.

Aunt Milliford is Dead: My new hotness. I played tons of one-shots of this, a real crowd pleaser every time. This is done, or close to it.

The Black Hack: I played a Black Hack/Knave hybrid campaign of The Dark of Hot Springs Island. This was an introduction to a light and fun system, filled with tables of weirdness. And Hot Springs Island itself is super weird.

Caravans: I played this at Forge, resulting in the now infamous Beet story. Shari also ran a mini-campaign

Clockwork Depths: A larp at Gamehole con, set in an underwater steampunk post-apocalypse world, with magic and zombies and stuff. This was the favorite game setting of a number of the players, who were savvy about the setting. I decided to lean into my character’s ignorance, re-framing myself as a Marine Biologist from Iowa, who discouraged by the lack of marine life in Iowa had relocated to this undersea fantasy land, giving me an in character reason to not have a clue. We were exploring a haunted ship, and when people started acting funny I did the smart thing and GTFO. I survived, floating in a minisub. The GM said I was her favorite player of the con.

Dungeon Crawl Classics: I played a few one shot sessions of this at Gamehole. I tried to get a few games going, but they didn’t quite get off the ground.

Dungeon World: Sabe and I ran a double-table ‘tournament’ event at Forge, with two groups exploring the same dungeon and trying to out-delve one another.

Dungeons and Dragons: As always, the proverbial 800 pound dragon in the room. In January, I finished up my Tomb of Annihilation game. Spent most of the year playing Colin’s Storm King’s Thunder game, which recently wrapped up, and started a Ghosts of Saltmarsh game. At Gamehole I played a number of Adventurer’s League sessions, including one where I stepped up to run because they were overbooked their tables and didn’t have enough Gms.

Fobolox Interstellar Company Retreat: This is a great larp about corporate bullshit, but with aliens. All hail the Orb.

Fools Rush In: A Be-Con Larp, set in a USO party during WWII, the night before most of the crews ship out. My character was from an expansion to the original scenario, so I felt a little out of place at times. Turns out I genuinely had fewer connections to the other characters than others did. Still managed to bring on some internal drama.

For the Queen: A card driven narrative game in a box, this is an inventive twist on the draw a card and narrate a thing formula, which I had long ago written off as a failure of game design. We played this twice- once at Gencon with Dave, and once with our regular Sunday group.

Ghost Court: I ran for a pretty big group late night at Gamehole con. Lots of great ghostly legal drama.

Glamourous Night: Jon Cole’s surrealist dance party larp, featuring fae, wizards, mortals, and benevolent animal spirits. I played an evil-sword, which was weird as hell, in a game that was weird as hell.

Gone: Todd Nicholas ran this Larp-but-maybe-not-a-larp game at BeCon, a game about someone cleaning out the possessions of someone who is Gone. One person is that person, everyone else is one of the inanimate objects. Deeply personal and introspective, a contrast to spectacle games of the rest of the con.

Kingsword: An Arthurian Larp at Be-Con, I was a surprisingly not villainous King Mark. I had some frustrations with the rules, but had a lot of great interactions (especially with Dave, my disappointment of a nephew, and Queen Gwenivere, my secret romantic love.) Lots of great costumes!

Monsterhearts: I ran a one shot of this at Games on Demand, a classic as always. I felt I had a few missteps with this one, not getting my head around the parasite-style Queen as much as I needed to in order to really properly follow the fiction. Still, Monsterhears

Noodle Heist: A transhumanist Blades in the Dark hack about restaurants and crime, in some combination. This was a really fun and bizarre game, bringing the high-concept far future concepts to life, with lots of anthropomorphic and non-binary characters. And crime.

Pendragon: Probably the most intense game of the year for me as a GM, I ran this for four months with the Madison Traditional Gamers. Running this was a lot of fun… but also a lot of work, and was not great for my anxiety issues.

Ryuutama: I ran a short campaign with for niece and her parents. A silly quest to discover the secret of making cookies, and defeat Team Evil in the Iron Chef challenge.

Slayer Cake: The most metal game of the year. Had a blast as Foxxy Lipstitch of Glam Rock band Fever Dreams (and later genre-mixing Rotten Tooth). Thanks to all the organizers of this!

Scum and Villainy: Sandwhiched between two campaigns of D&D, I ran this for a few months. Good fun, our stalwart crew hunting bounties and trying to figure out the big conspiracy.

Tales of the Obsidian Idol: Tim ran a great game of this Dungeon World hack, as we searched for the Obsidian Idol. Turns out it was all the fault of an ancient thing of druids. Character creation for this is super evocative, with choosing items from lists that have very juicy choices. I played a Barbarian from a culture of machine people who were forged-for-war, if you know what I mean. And since we had no use for the Makers or their Gods, we killed them, and built our own God. Metal.

The Sword, the Crown, and the Unspeakable Power: Mark Redacted ran a mini-campaign of this at Minnesota Long Con. I played the Spur, my favorite playbook, styled as a pirate queen. After she retired, I got to play the actual Queen, a Crown for the final session that my naive crown should not have possibly survived, but all my enemies took each other out in a massive Xanatos Pileup, so yay!

Timelines: I played two games of this at Gencon for Games on Demand. Both groups had a lot of fun, but the mechanics were still not quite what I wanted them to be.

Trail of Cthulhu: I played a one-shot at Gamehole, which went the way all my previous gumshoe games have gone, in that the game is great fun until you have to engage the combat system, at which point everything grinds to a halt.

We’ve Got to Talk About Todd: A game about four people, having a conversation about a person who isn’t there, by people who really should have figured this out months ago.

World of Darkness (Mortals) A short campaign featuring FBI agents in far over their heads, where I played a gun-safety obsessed agent who badly wanted to retire, but had too many cultists to shoot.

Zweihander: One of the few games Tim and I played together at Games on Demand, essentially a WHFRP clone. Not bad, if that’s what you’re into, but this session was pretty painful, with things stretched out waaay too long. Like an hour spent trying to get a heavy thing out of a hole.

Twenty-seven games. I just KNOW I’m missing some, and it bothers me that I can’t place them.

Willow’s List: Top 10 Roleplaying Games of the 2010s

It’s been a great decade for roleplaying games, with many quality releases, both big and small. This is my personal list of the top ten games of the 2010s, based on actual play delivered at the table. I took a number of qualities into account: how innovative is the game? How vibrant is the community it has fostered? But most importantly, how fun is it?

Only included are actual games, no supplements, expansions, or adventures. Also absent are any reprints, re-edits, or re-releases of any kind. New games only. Also, none of the games that I personally released are on this list, even though they are all excellent. And despite my best efforts, I have not managed to play all the games that have been released this decade, so there are likely some games that have passed me by.

#10: Microscope (2011, Ben Robbins)

Ben Robbins was originally most famous for his D&D experiment the West Marches, an epic hexcrawl game featuring multiple players in the same world, dropping in and out of fluid groups. This same world building drive is seen in his later games, Microscope, Kingdom, and Follow.

I don’t even like Microscope. I think it’s too dry, too easy to get caught up in the mechanics of the game to avoid caring about the emergent story. But I can’t deny its brilliance, or the ambition of its premise. In Microscope, you and your fellow players create a timeline of events, regarding any topic you agree on before the game begins: the rise and fall of an empire, the ongoing war between the gods, or the history of a single city. Players take turns creating events on a timeline, and then zooming in on key points to play them out. These scenes are the only in-character play Microscope features, and risk end up being stilted. The end result also ends up being pretty gonzo, because while there’s some exercises at the beginning to get everyone on the same page, and generate a list of elements that are encouraged or disallowed, after that there is not supposed to be any player-level negotiation. Don’t like what someone did? Play somewhere else on the timeline. If players can’t harmonize their visions for the timeline, Microscope goes off the rails. But despite all this, Microscope serves as a roadmap for many of the worldbuilding games that followed.

#9: Mythender (2012, Ryan Macklin)

Do you want to roll a bunch of dice? No, even more dice than that. No, keep adding some. Oh dear, I think you may have to buy some more dice. Okay, you can stop now. Let’s go kill some gods.

Mythender is a frickin’ metal game of epic heroes on the cusp of godhood themselves going out and killing some tyrant gods. In the tutorial adventure, which teaches the ropes of the game, the heroes get to kill Thor, and there’s rules in there for pruning the whole Norse family tree, or the pantheon of your choice. Narrate impossible stunts, get a ton of dice, use those dice to get even more dice, then blow up a god. You can always draw upon your own mythic strength to get more dice and cool powers, but you risk becoming a god in the process… and becoming the next Myth that needs to be Ended.

This is the game that I wanted Exalted to be, high-powered, high-stakes action. The mechanics are essentially a die pool system, however a very unique one that is a bit unintuitive to take in all at once, but the tutorial adventure introduces these mechanics in a very logical series of events. The game also properly establishes the mindset for the GM to treat the players with the respect their characters deserve, addressing them as Lord or Lady Mythender, and acting almost like a game-butler. This game does just one thing, but man does it do it well.

#8: Dungeon World (2012, Sage LaTorra and Adam Koebel)

The first Powered By the Apocalypse World on this list, but it won’t be the last. Like Microscope, Dungeon World isn’t exactly my cup of tea, but it’s impossible to deny Dungeon World’s impact. Dungeon World was originally envisioned as a way to adapt D&D for the indie crowd, but what it really ended up doing was adapting indie techniques for the D&D crowd. All the familiar D&D tropes are there, with a streamlined system that makes improvising for the GM easier and focuses on establishing interesting consequences for failure, resulting in the sort of dungeon antics that people remember fondly and talk about for years.

As a player, Dungeon World often feels too easy for me, and as a Gamemaster, a touch too freeform: I seem to prefer concrete challenge in my dungeon delvers. However there are a lot of people whose tastes differ than mine, and if you enjoy the tropes of D&D but find the mechanics cumbersome you should give this a try. (It’s one of the few games I’ve gotten my parents to play; they both loved it, and my Mom even asked if we could keep playing after I suggested we wrap up for the night.)

#7: Dungeon Crawl Classics (2012, Joseph Goodman et al)

Dungeon Crawl Classics exists in the orbit of the OSR (Old School Revival/Revolution) returning to the roots of D&D, back before editions were numbered and the dice had to be filled in with crayon and the road to the dungeon was uphill both ways and by golly that’s how we liked it. Rather than serving as a fan edit or remix as many alliteratively titled OSR games do, DCC builds on what the designers viewed as the principles of OSR gaming and the narrative style of the fiction present in Gygax’s original Appendix N: Further Reading, while using the 3rd edition D&D SRD as a foundation for the rules. This is the swords and sorcery fantasy of Robert E. Howard and Jack Vance, with seven sided and twenty-four sided dice to bring back that sense of wonder you felt the first time you picked up those polyhedrons the first time around.

DCC is just plain weird, in a way that many D&D imitators aren’t, featuring a magic system that feels strange and mysterious, interesting crits and fumbles, and a series of adventures that are some of the most imaginative around. DCC is particularly famous for the ‘0-level funnel’ type of adventure, where each player starts with 4 characters who have a d4 hit points and not much else, trying to survive by their wits and luck. This style of play is very divisive, much loved by some, hated by others, but certainly worth trying at least once.

My main issue with DCC, which prevents this game from being higher on this list, is the holes in the rules, areas where things are a bit unclear, or a common situation results in a difficult to assess situation. (An example: any Wizard with a luck modifier rolling on the 1d100 Mercurial Magic adds or subtracts modifiers in increments of +/- 10, meaning that rolling off the table becomes statistically the most likely result. I would not recommend taking that as a result of 1 or 100, as they are extreme.) In the OSR community these sorts of things are often viewed as an advantage, giving each individual gamemaster a way to put their own unique stamp on the game (no two GM’s I’ve played with seem to do Luck exactly the same, for example), but I am a firm believer that clarity is one of the most important things for a rules text, and making sure that rules can be universally understood is especially important for a game with as large an organized presence as DCC has. The game is gonzo as hell and I love it, but this clunkiness holds the game back.

#6: Dungeons & Dragons, (5th edition, 2014, Mike Mearls, Jeremy Crawford et al)

The only new edition of a previously published game on my list, many will be surprised at its placement at the number 6 spot. D&D is the behemoth of the tabletop games industry, easily the most visible and most played of any rpg. (The 2nd most visible and played is Pathfinder, which is now the 4th edition of the 3rd edition of D&D. After that it drops off sharply, in practical terms, there is no number 3 in market share.)

D&D 5th edition is the least innovative game on this list, taking it’s mechanics from earlier editions of the game. There’s something for everyone in here, no matter their favorite edition. Those ‘old-school’ gamers who felt betrayed by the design choices of 3rd and 4th editions find a return to the frameworks that they were used to, while keeping the best mechanical innovations of 3rd edition and a fair number from 4th. This is a ‘big tent’ game, designed to be approachable to all players, which means it does a lot of different things, but isn’t great at any of them. In terms of sheer polish, this is the best D&D yet, and Wizard’s commitment to quality rather than quantity of source books has been refreshing. The published adventures present months of viable play, and are generally excellent. This version of D&D happens to coincide at the same time as the rise of streaming play, allowing prospective new players to watch a game of D&D before playing it, resulting in an expansion of the hobby like never before. While there’s no reason that another game can’t or won’t be someone’s entry to the hobby, D&D has decades of name recognition behind it and dominates the rpg conversation.

#5: Torchbearer (2013, Thor Olavsrud & Luke Crane)

Like Mouse Guard (2009), Torchbearer is a revision of the core Burning Wheel rules: simplified in many extents, with a specific focus on a single style of play, and in this case that style is dungeon delving murderhobos. Torchbearer is a well oiled machine that chews up adventurers and spits them back out, hungry and tired, chasing that next big score. One of the best mechanics is the Grind, which by every four turns (a turn being one die roll or conflict) resources get used up and adventurers get worn down. Torchbearer demands skillful play of its players, both in interfacing with the dungeon environment and in mastering the game mechanics, which not everyone is willing to put the time and energy into, but is highly rewarding. Like Dungeon World, this is an old school dungeon crawler with modern mechanics, but where Dungeon World will fight you on an exploding steampunk zeppelin, Torchbearer will shiv you in a back alley for spare change.

#4: Blades in the Dark (2016, John Harper)

Easily the best system for heist games I’ve played, Blades in the Dark casts the players as a band of criminals in a game of an industrial magical world of perpetual night. The system uses a pool of dice with the best number taken, 1-3 being bad, 4-5 being okay, and 6 (or even 2 sixes!) being best. The system takes some getting used to, since it involves the GM setting stakes on two axis before the roll: how effective is the action being taken (Effect), and how bad are the consequences for failure (Danger). Because of this I find Blades challenging to run, and one of the few games that I prefer playing to running. The setting of Duskvol is well established in the book- perhaps too well established, since it can create an intimidating wall of information to process, and everything is linked directly or indirectly to everything else. Challenging to process, but resulting in a dark gritty world that feels alive with its own story and flow, existing despite the schemes of the players. The core of the system is the ‘Forged in the Dark’ system, which has already produced the excellent Scum and Villainy (planetary space rogues) and Band of Blades (military fantasy, reminiscent of The Watch.)

Success in Blades in the Dark is hard fought: most of the time there will be consequences for success, meaning any victory will come at a cost and be fleeting, which is fitting for the grim and perilous world of Duskvol, and has the potential to create an avalanche of play as things go wrong and repeatedly escalate. The danger in play is feeling like you are under the sole of a boot stamping on your face forever, unable to get out from under it, which is damn appropriate to the setting, but is it fun? It can be, but it can also get repetitive.

#3: Itras By (2012, Martin Bull Gudmundsen and Ole Peder Giӕver)

The best game you’ve probably never heard of. Or you have heard of it, in which case you are a person of distinguished taste. Itras By is a Norwegian noir surrealist roleplaying game, set in the titular city of Itras By, which exists in a dream and feels like something straight out of The Dark City or early-mid 20th century dystopian sci-fi. The book is beautiful and full of exercises to get the reader thinking about surreal game play techniques, including ones that encourage the reader to write in, deface, or otherwise physically modify the game text. Play is essentially improv, punctuated by cards featuring responses like “Yes, but…” or “No, and…”, the same system used in games like Archipelago, for when an impartial resolution is needed. The other mechanic that influences play is the Chance Cards, which impart a bit of surrealality into the experience. Each player can draw one each session, and they have effects ranging from the subtle – your character gives a monologue to the audience about their inner thoughts – to the absolutely bonkers – objects and abstract concepts animate and begin to talk and interact with the scene. Play is super fluid, and can go from heartfelt to strange to silly to serious and back again seamlessly. Every session I’ve played has been a joy, and incredibly unique.

The Itras By Menagerie (2017) adds even more Itras-ness, with essays on play, new card suggestions, new setting stuff (including a section by yours truly), and is even thicker than the original book. This game is worth checking out, if only to see just how weird roleplaying can get if you let it.

#2: Monsterhearts (1st edition 2012, 2nd edition 2018, Avery Alder)

Monsterhearts is a game of teenage monsters, and being a teenager is often the harder part of that. Think of all your favorite tropes from media like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, Vampire Diaries, and other Teen Monster fiction, put them in a blender, and turn the melodrama up to eleven. Powered by the Apocalypse, each of the different playbooks (“skins”) is a different type of monster, with all your favorite monster mashers featured: the Ghost, the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the most evil of all monsters, the Mortal (who has the power to get into toxic relationships. It’s awesome.) The rules reinforce that the characters are teenagers and don’t have the best control over themselves, creating messy storylines of love triangles and property damage, as hearts and bones get broken. My favorite rule is that of The Darkest Self, a paragraph on each playbook that turns them into a giant raging asshole, and a threat to everyone else, under certain conditions. The Werewolf wolfs out, the Witch goes mad with power, and the Ghoul goes on a feeding frenzy. Darkest Self gives you permission to be that guy who is like “I’m just playing my character,” – nay, it requires you to be that guy, and it’s liberating. This is a twisted game that results in twisted stories, and I love it. It is also the most queer-positive game out there: every character is queer by default. (Hint: the whole ‘becoming a monster’ is a metaphor for coming to terms with ones own sexuality.)

This is my favorite game to run for a con one-shot; in four hours it delivers a delightfully murderous time, every time, but the campaign games are just as fun, allowing for more of a slow burn story, dangerous secrets coming out (pun intended) and as much anticipation as waiting for next week’s episode on the CW. (A campaign I ran resulted in the “A Very Monsterhearts Christmas” session, which will forever live in Infamy in my playgroup.)

#1: Apocalypse World (1st edition 2010, 2nd edition 2017, Vincent Baker and Meguey Baker)

Already beloved in the indie scene for games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Vincent Baker struck game design gold at the beginning of the decade with Apocalypse World, which spawned the Powered By the Apocalypse system, taking off and inspiring dozens and dozens of new games. Teaming up with his wife Meguey Baker (1001 Nights), this vision of the Post-Apocalypse is dark and gritty, painted in broad strokes with careful word choices, encouraging and demanding the GM and players to collaborate on building their own post-apocalypse wasteland, but fortunately giving everyone the tools needed to do just that.

Where to start with this one? The dice system is simple: roll 2d6 and add a modifier. 7-9 is a success, possibly with a consequence, 10 or above is a full success, and 6 is a failure. However each die roll is a scripted ‘Move,’ with explicit rules for what happens at each level of result. This means the GM spends less energy interpreting results, and more time getting to be creative about how they’re going to screw you over when you finally do roll that 6 or less.

Characters in Apocalypse World are larger than life, incredibly competent, and bound to make their mark on the setting around them, which is good- we want to be interested in them, right? People expecting a gritty system where death can come for you at any moment may be disappointed. Scarcity is everywhere, and death surrounds you, but the player characters are survivors by nature, burdened with enduring this broken world.

One of the best things in Apocalypse World (and it’s a game full of best things) is the chapter on GM advice, laying out very specifically what techniques to use in running AW. It’s concise, specific, and not optional: a lot of GM advice takes the wishy-washy tack of “here’s some techniques you can use, if you want, I guess,” and Apocalypse World takes that stance out back and shoots it. AW tells you specifically to Be A Fan of the Player Characters, to Ask Questions and Build on the Results, to Say What Honesty Demands, and best of all, to Barf Forth Apocalyptica. These mandates foster an environment of trust and collaboration between GM and players, and instruct the GM in how to run a killer game of Apocalypse World. The game is worth the price of admission for the GM advice alone; even if not running an AW game, much of the advice is widely applicable, and considering it carefully will make you a better GM even when running a game that demands the exact opposite of one of its Principles. I frequently see Principles (or statements clearly like them) transported into other games, especially ones not Powered by the Apocalypse, and I think this is great, calling attention to how to GM the game for maximum enjoyment, and a mark of this game’s lasting influence.

In addition to making a damn fine roleplaying game, the Bakers have called attention to and codified roleplaying procedures that a lot of us had been doing anyway, and given us the vocabulary to talk about them in simple terms. Vincent Baker’s thoughts on the structure of roleplaying games is like the discovery of the Atom, opening up advances in design in myriad directions. If there is a game that has defined the collective game design of the decade, this is it.

Honorable Mentions:

These are all fine games deserving of your notice, in no particular order except the alphabet.

13th Age (2013, Rob Heinsoo and Jonathan Tweet): A simplified reimagining of the D&D 4th edition experience, 13th age scraps the battlemap in favor of narrative flexibility. Full of cool ideas, mostly buried under the hype of D&D 5th edition.

Dog Eat Dog (2013, Liam Liwanag Burke) a game about Imperialism and the effects it has on indigenous societies, Dog Eat Dog is fast, lean, and insightful.

Fate Core (2013, Leonard Balsera et al) The generic system of choice for designers putting out essentially a setting book, Fate is well refined but bland. The earlier Spirit of the Century was a bit clunkier, but had a lot more spirit. Easy to adapt, a one-size-fits-all approach.

Forbidden Lands (2018, Eric Granstrӧm) The only game on this list I haven’t actually played, Forbidden Lands is a dark fantasy Hex Crawl, using the same d6 system as Mutant Year Zero and Tales from the Loop. The boxed set is beautiful, and features a double sided Hex Map with stickers, making every group’s Hex Crawl unique and generating a unique artifact to prove it.

Ghost Court (2017, Jason Morningstar) Is it an rpg? Is it a larp? Ghost Court is advertised as a ‘party game,’ but let’s get real, it’s a larp about ghost courtroom drama. Judge Judy with ghosts. You know you want it.

Mars Colony (2010, Tim Koppang) A roleplaying game for two players, with one of them an administrator trying to save a failing Mars Colony. (Hint: it’s a metaphor for real world politics.) It uses push-your-luck rolls to try to get progress, and issues ripped from whatever piss you off about politics in your country.

Scum and Villainy (2018, Stras Acimovic, John Leboeur-Little) It’s Star Wars Forged in the Dark. I actually like it more than Blades, since it feels a little more accessible.

The Black Hack (1st edition 2016, 2nd edition 2018, David Black) An OSR game with razor-light rules, and tables chock full of weirdness. Already has spawned many Hacks of the Hack.

The Clay That Woke (2014, Paul Czerge) Shouldn’t you be thinking about minotaurs? Probably the weirdest resolution system of any game I’ve played, bidding tokens into a bowl and then drawing them out and comparing the results to a table. Worth buying just for the strange setting, and has some interesting things to say about society and masculinity.

The Sword, the Crown, and the Unspeakable Power (2018, Todd Nicholas et al) Game of Thrones powered by the Apocalypse. That should really be all you need to know.

The Watch (2017, Anna Kreider) Military fantasy Powered by the Apocalypse, and the player characters are all women. And the shadowy enemy is Literally Patriarchy.

World Wide Wrestling (2015, Nathan Paoletta) I’m not a wrestling fan, and I loved this game. PbtA, the rules create a great narrative of in- and out of ring action. Just don’t break Kayfabe.

The Great Pendragon Campaign, 500, Part I

I started off the session getting Sir Neroven’s player back up to speed, since he had missed the last half of 499. He had gotten married to Lady Cath, one of the daughters of Lady Indeg, who came with a sizeable dowry (20 libra and 2 manors.) Like everyone else, his lands were raided. Thanks to the dowry money, he’s starting to build a Bailey for his manor, but these things take time. One of his events for the 499 winter was that Lady Cath had a questionable birth- upon questioning, it was revealed that yes, before they were married she had relations with another man (that’s the problem with lustful wives.) The question then came up, what to do with the child? One of the double standards of the medieval era is that a man siring a bastard is no problem (and even expected), but a woman who has a child outside of marriage has committed a crime, even more so if she was an adulteress. Sir Nerovens, as a pagan, is more relaxed about these things, but society expects him to produce an heir. He had a number of options here- recognize it as his own, foist it off on a church or temple, but choose to accept the bastard into his family. I think I gave him checks on Honest and Modest for this- acknowledging an uncomfortable truth, and putting the needs of others before his own reputation.

Pentecost brought news that Cornwall had continued to expand, conquering county by county, having now taken over Jagent, where Count Madog (not to be confused with King Madog of the Forest Sauvage), who had insisted on singing for one’s supper had surrendered. No word on whether or not he had asked Prince Mark to sing. Lady Jenna had been married to Sir Ulfian, one of the sons of Duke Ulfias, and as a dowry had some land that had been contested with Levcomagus. Those who were intrigue-savvy learned that Prince Mark’s squire had brought a secret message to the castle in the dead of night, and apparently went away unhappy with the response. And Sir Salador arrived, and was recognized as rightful holder of his lands by Lady Ellen, and swore to serve her.

Other news: the Saxons of Kent and Essex were fighting each other, and looking to hire mercenaries. And fortunately, no one was here to demand tribute. Unfortunately, news came that one of the border castles was under assault by an army led by Prince Cynric of Wessex! The knights were mobilized and set out.

For this I used the rules from the Book of Battle. On the surface, they seem pretty simple, and I thought I had them down, but in practice they tended to be more complicated than they looked, with little details and modifiers here and there. Book of Battle introduces options for the unit leader to pick a maneuver (it reminded me a lot of the scripted combat from Burning Empires or Mouse Guard), and an Intensity system to represent the ebb and flow of battle, and also allow for a battle that the player’s actions can impact the victory. (The base system in the KAP rules involves a scripted victory- after a certain number of rounds, the battle ends, and the events is about what happens to the PCs and how much glory they could gain.)

Going into the battle, I did not know which way it was going to go, whether it would be a victory for the Saxons or not, I was going to let the dice fall where they may- it’s the Anarchy period, and anything can happen!

Once we got into the battle, it went really slowly- I was less familiar with the new rules than I thought I was, and something I discovered quickly was that the Tides of Battle make a much bigger difference.

Tides of Battle is a 3d6 -10 roll, resulting in a number somewhere from -7 to +8, which is a modifier to Battle rolls (and in the base rules, I think, combat rolls.) In the base battle rules, this lasts just for the round; it determines how well your army is doing right now. In Book of Battle, it is cumulative, and adds to Intensity (your army’s score, high is bad.) Every Tide of Battle roll I got was at least a 14, which is incredibly bad for the players. The first round they got a triumph (I think I interpreted the rules wrong), the best result, and modified their Intensity by -2, but increased it by +4. It got much worse from there.

We didn’t really get to see any of the scripting stuff, because the results of the battle meant that the players were forced into a certain maneuver each turn, due to Intensity scoring a critical hit, which meant they were fighting two Saxon units each round. Book of Battle has two tables for Saxons, one for a basic, scrappy Saxon army, and one for a more experienced Saxon army. For the first few rounds, I used the experienced table, but even though the players were emerging overall victorious, they were having a hard time of it, a few of them suffering major wounds. I probably should have leaned on the basic chart, given that this was the first battle of this segment, and the real experienced characters all died at St. Albans– it makes sense that the experienced Saxons would have died off too.

Anyway, after three rounds I called it for the Saxons. The players got a pittance of glory due to the defeat (like 25 each), which I’m going to go back and double. Sir Hermel got his major wound from a blue cloaked Saxon, some sort of aging badass. Those knights who didn’t yet have Hatred of Saxon picked up the passion.

After losing the battle and retreating to tend their wounds, the knights decided that they would rally Lady Elfrida’s knights, and armed with cold iron (which is really just a fancy name for iron), return to her castle to free it from the goblin horde. They made their preparations, ready to return to the Forest of Gloom.

The Great Pendragon Campaign, 499, Part II

Two of our knights were needed elsewhere- clearly Sir Nerovens had wedding preparations to attend to- so it was Sir Gherard, Sir Harvis, and Sir Hermel who ventured north, escorting Lady Nineve and her handmaidens into the Forest Sauvage.

Sir Gherard was quite vexed by the logistics of traveling with women, who seemed to want to stop constantly for all sorts of trivial reasons, and found himself quite restless and scouting ahead. However Sir Harvis and Sir Hermel were quite taken by the luxurious provisions Lady Nineve had brought along, eating quite well and looking forward to their next meals.

They crossed over into Glouchester, a land now divided between old Duke Eldol’s many relatives. They stopped at Castle Marlborough, where young Lord Eldwyn, no more than eight or nine years old held the castle. He did not seem to have a Regent, but rather ruled with the advice of a Christian monk. He granted the knights hospitality, and was the most gracious host they had met so far.

They avoided the main roads, and were able to avoid any banditry or challenges by hostile knights, and made it to the Forest Sauvage. Lady Nineve seemed to know the hidden paths to take, and led the knights forward.

They met a strange Squire, named Llewellyn, who was unusually cold, and asked the knights for a cloak. When Sir Gherard gave him one, they found that it did not fit him, covering barely a shoulder. Sir Harvis gave his as well, but it seemed quite small on the squire’s frame. Sir Hermel gave his cloak up only reluctantly, after being chided by Lady Nineve. (Sir Gherard and Harvis got Generous checks, Hermel got a Selfish check.)

Squire Llewellyn led them to the Castle of the Falcon, a small keep and nearby village surrounded by the local forest. The only knight present was the owner, Sir Ector, and the castle had clearly seen better days. He explained that he believed Llewellyn was a ‘spiritual giant,’ as if that explained anything. Without any servants to attend to him, Ector had his two sons, boys of about ten and eight, named Kay and Art, attend to the knights.

Sir Ector showed them the mews and the falcons (Merlins, as it happened), and the knights went falconing. Sir Harvis exchanged news with Sir Ector, and asked Ector if he had ever met Merlin- Ector said he hadn’t, but Harvis could tell the knight was lying. He did not press him on this mystery, since Ector had otherwise been a gracious host.

They continued onward through the forest, and encountered a pavilion of ladies, led by one Lady Blanche de Blanche, who told the knights she and her ladies were discussing morality, and wanted to know what made them good men. Sir Hermel said that it was because he took care of his family and provided for them. Sir Gherard said that he strove to be just in all things, and Sir Harvis that he was brave in battle. (Sir Hermel was clearly reaching for a generous check, after getting one for selfish; he got checks in Honor and Love: Family. Gherard got checks for Just and Modest, and Harvis for Proud and Valorous.)

They encountered a field of poppies, that made everyone who crossed through want to fall asleep, but the vigorous knights were able to carry out the squires and ladies who fell asleep.

Finally, they reached Lady Nineve’s destination, the home of an old friend of hers. This woman was near the end of her life, and was in pain, and asked Nineve to brew her a potion that would end her life. Lady Nineve was somewhat taken back by this. Sir Hermel told her she had to be true to herself, which comforted Nineve. After her original shock, she had no problem brewing the potion. She gave Sir Hermel the root he would need to cure his sickly child, and told the knights she and her handmaidens would be continuing north, to Gorre, to their mistress, Queen Morgan. She told the knights to go back the way they came, but also mentioned that if they sought adventure they might seek King Madog, the King of the Forest at the heart of the Forest Sauvage.

They ventured back to the Castle of the Falcon, where the younger page (clearly a reliable source of information), told them that it was rumored that anyone who passed three trials would be granted a boon by King Madog. Going deeper into the forest (now finding a clear path further in), they encountered a bridge guarded by Sir Joust, who wanted a friendly joust with the knights. Each jousted in turn, and he unhorsed each of them, however did so so skillfully that they were unharmed. Afterwards, he led them to the Castle of Ease.

At the Castle of Ease, they were feasted and granted warm beds, private chambers, and even a bath! Sir Harvis found his long lost sister Violet, who had married a knight and had two children. After staying the night, they found the castle most welcome… so welcome in fact, that they felt that if they stayed another night, they might want to stay another, then another. The three energetic knights took their leave of the Lord of the Castle of Ease, and continued on their journey.

After traveling through another village, where everything was unusually clean (including the pigs and the dogs and the peasants), they stopped at the Castle of the Race, where the Lord, Sir Yves, insisted on racing one of them. The track didn’t look so hard on foot, so all three knights agreed to race him. However once they set off, they found that the course was quite confusing, and Sir Hermel and Harvis found themselves hopelessly lost in the forest. Only Sir Gherard actually finished the race, with Sir Yves waiting at the finish line for him. He ventured forth into the forest to find his fellow knights, and found himself lost with them.

They traveled through the forest for several days (weeks?) getting no closer to Castle Sauvage. They first encountered Sir Bryan of Tribuit, who offered to show them the way out, and warned them that the forest was a dangerous, cursed place. Still, they ventured forward. Next, they encountered an old hag, who scoffed at them and told them if they had any sense they would leave. Still, they ventured forward. Next, they encountered a remote shrine, and the hermit who kept it, who pointed the way out, and told them no good would come to them if they stayed. Still, they ventured forward. Finally, they encountered a talking bear, who roared at them to leave. They figured this was a pretty good sign, and took the bear’s advice, and exited the forest, miles and miles away from where they entered.

They made it back home, to a scene of devastation. The Saxons of Wessex had raided their lands, so heavily that it would take years to recover. (In addition to the 3 points of raiding that had happened before, there were 2 points of ‘permanent’ damage, that reduced the value of their lands. Some of the knights, through good stewardship were able to mend the damage, and those who were married were also able to have their wives aid them, but it was a hard year all around, and most of the knights were forced to adopt poor lifestyle.)

The Great Pendragon Campaign, 499, Part I

In many ways, 499 is a watershed moment for the campaign. A few of these reasons are certainly in-character: King Idres of Cornwall is going to war with Jagent, which means that if successful, Salisbury will now border the Cornish juggernaut. So far the Saxons have mostly been posturing and raiding, but this is also the start of serious military action. However 499 has an incredibly short writeup in GPC- the only year to date that has been shorter was 493, which was still a great session, but it meant doing an improvised scenario, rather one from the book- which may very well be part of why it was a success.

But more importantly, it was when I figured out that with the number of sessions available (the games are run in four month blocks), I simply can’t get through the Anarchy in a single block without rushing things… so I might as well run this over an eight month period (December is bad for gaming anyway), and give more attention to each individual year. If the players want to spend an hour of each session going over the events at Pentecost Court, why not? It also gives more freedom to dig in and follow events in more detail, rather than trying to resolve everything in broad strokes, which I think would really do the period a disservice.

Anyway, there’s not much for the GM to latch on to in 499- some updates to the current events, the Saxons of Wessex wanting extra tribute, Prince Mark showing up. Technically the knights have been free to do as they will in any year, but this is the first year that did not have an obvious hook to latch into that demanded the knights’ attention, making it a sort of inflection point: this is where the rails fall away, and the notes in GPC become increasingly about what is happening elsewhere. Somewhat appropriate as the characters look on to the new century (technically the century doesn’t start until 501, but who’s counting.) And maybe this doesn’t matter to anyone but me, but I tend to overthink these things.

So we opened by picking up with Sir Hermel IV and his new wife. I finally put together my random wife table, and everyone watched with baited breath as the player rolled up Hermel’s new wife. He got a lucky roll and generated an heiress, and then got lucky again and it turned out she was a widow- extra glory, and she has some assets from her first marriage. (Also, she was originally 15, but being a widow added 2d6 to that. And then she was an ‘old maid’ for another 1d6.) Lady Efa is Energetic and Merciful and Lustful (good for Pagans), and skilled in Falconry, First Aid, Stewardship, and the art of Recognize. Quite the catch!

(Also Sir Ulysses has a nephew that is a Changeling. He doesn’t seem very concerned.)

There were several high profile visitors at Pentecost: Prince Mark from Cornwall, Prince Cynric of Wessex, and Sir Ulfian of Silchester, son of the Duke.

Prince Mark came seeking an alliance with Salisbury, and was hiring mercenaries for “the usual rate.” I could not find the rate for hiring a knight as a mercenary- a mounted sergeant is one pound a month, so I doubled that to two pounds, a tempting offer for many of the recently impoverished knights. Sir Gherard attempted to converse with Prince Mark and judge his intentions, and tried to make an Awareness roll (with a penalty)- it turns out that Prince Mark is a really hard guy to read. After a failed Suspicious test, Sir Harvis came away with the impression that Prince Mark was a great guy and super trustworthy- after all, he had been taking lands from Ygraine. What could possibly go wrong?

Prince Cynric wanted double tribute, and promised protection from the other Saxons.

The single knights of course engaged in some courtship/conversation with ladies: Gherard talked with Lady Rhonwen of Rydychan, who lamented if only some brave knight would help her retake her lands. Gherard, not having a plan to fight against sixty knights, was noncommittal. Sir Harvis found out from Lady Elfrida, a wealthy landowner, that her Castle had been sucked up by the Forest of Gloom, and invaded by Goblins! Modest Ulysses courted Lady Jenna, and heard her lament that she was not married yet- unfortunately he’s likely too low on the totem pole to catch her notice. Sir Nerovens identified Lady Cath as a reasonably available wife- not needing to rid a castle of goblins or a county of usurpers. To marry Lady Cath of course, he would have to get in good with her mother, Lady Indeg (thrice widowed, most recently to famed Sir Bersules). He critted his Flirting roll, leaving Lady Indeg with a very good impression, and she invited him to visit them later in the year.

There was some discussion over here about what to do next, but Goblins certainly stood out as the most interesting. They went to Lady Elfrida’s lands, got a hunter guide, and went into the Forest of Gloom, which has been expanding at a large rate, not unlike the Forest Sauvage to the north. Traveling through a village that had been overtaken completely by nature, the knights were ambushed by six goblins. A botched Awareness roll left Sir Gherard unable to act in the first round, and due to their hideous looks, a Valorous roll was required by all the knights, which Sir Gherard botched once more. The creatures killed the guide, but where largely ineffective against the knights, only doing a single point of damage to Ulysses. Gherard ran from the goblins, and had to be reassured to rejoin the group, and picked up a Fear: Goblins passion.

They met two large Goblins, named Bug and Gug at the gates to the castle, who engaged them in conversation. The Goblins seemed a bit daft, and had some odd opinions about things, but related that the castle belonged to their Lord Djejj, they had come with the forest from “over there,” and they weren’t leaving. They asked if they could speak to Lord Djejj, and after some debate between the Goblins, Bug and Gug offered Hospitality.

Here Sir Gherard failed (or rather succeeded- success is bad in this case, meaning he must act within the passion) a Fear: Goblins roll, and was understandably quite reluctant to enter a keep full of goblins. Being a generous GM and not wanting him Out of the Story, I told him he could enter as long as he steeled himself by making some precaution. After mulling it over, he decided he would draw his weapons, and claim it was a sign of respect. The gullible Goblins believed him. Sir Hermel followed suit, reasoning a good tactic. They both got a check on Deceitful for their troubles, and lost a point of Hospitality.

Entering, they found the keep overgrown with plants, and swarming with goblins. In the main hall, which was completely trashed, they encountered Lord Djejj (“the J is silent!”), who Sir Ulysses correctly identified as a Spriggan, a size-changing creature. Valorous rolls were successful by all, and they were able to stand firm and converse with the Spriggan. Lord Djejj was a little bit more informative about Over There, but still clearly thought about things in a non-human way. He refused to leave the keep, stating that it was his now, but smiling, very magnanimously said he would allow Lady Elfrida to return.

“But at what price?” asked Gherard, getting him some glory for asking the all important question.

“Why, her hand in marriage, of course.”

The knights exited the castle, and told Lady Elfrida what they had seen.

A few scenes here and there with knights attending to personal business. Sir Nerovens paid Lady Indeg and Lady Cath a visit. What is important to understand is that Lady Indeg is both notably Lustful and Indulgent; she and Sir Bersules essentially had an open marriage. (Her brothers didn’t approve, but they died at the Infamous Feast.) Lady Indeg set a condition for Sir Nerovens- he had to give her a roll in the hay first. (Perhaps to make sure he could take care of her daughter?) Sir Nerovens went through with it, costing him a point of Honor (having sex with your betrothed-to-be-betrothed’s mother is weird.) Oh, and one more condition. She wanted a Christian wedding. This seemed like more of a dealbreaker for Pagan Nerovens, but upon learning he wasn’t required or expected to convert, he relented. Preparations were to be made for the wedding later that year.

Sir Hermel, returning to his wife (and his bastard children, and her three children from her first marriage), met a strange woman- Lady Nineve, who claimed to have been sent by Merlin to look after his sickly child. She promised to cure him, but asked for Sir Hermel to do a service for her- she needed some brave knights to escort her on a journey through the Forest Sauvage. (Fortunately, she said, she knew certain secret paths that would aid their travel in the Forest.)

Gathering up his fellow knights, they set out, deciding to take the route through Glouchester, rather than Salisbury/Levcomagus like they had on their previous foray. Looking at the Salisbury map, we saw that they were passing through independent Swans Hundred. One of the things to remember is that each county is divided into twenty-ish subdivisions called Hundreds, and that because of feudalism, who owns what is patchwork and messy sometimes- Count Robert may own most of Salisbury, but certainly not all of it. And because the rightful holder may be dead, or a hundred miles away, or no one knows who it is, or the rightful holder is the king (and there isn’t a king), these things can get messy. This is why things like Adverse Possession came into be- the land is there, someone ought to use it, and if no one shows up to own it, maybe that person should own it.

Anyway. They encountered a Sir Salador, who held the hundred for Lord Thornwood, who is dead, with no clear heir. (I screwed up the details here- in Book of the Warlord, Sir Salador is supposed to be Lord Thornwood’s son and heir, but I presented him as a Castellan with a dubious claim. That’s who he is now, I guess.) Sir Salador was fortifying the town, in the process of building a castle. He was fairly amiable to the knights, and they asked him if he would attend next year’s Pentecost feast. This was pretty much the best reception they’d had with a foreign knight. Then they set off, ready to travel into Glouchester.

The Great Pendragon Campaign, 498

498 opened with some of the knights taking a more proactive approach: Sir Nerovens and Sir Harvis paid Sir Lycus of Llud’s Hall a visit, asking if he was going to be at Countess Ellen’s Pentecost feast, and if he was going to pay her homage. Sir Lycus rather awkwardly refused both, and then tried to change the subject with wine. ‘We’re going to get poisoned,’ said Harvis, but there was no poison, just an attempt to smother uncomfortable subjects with hospitality. Savvy Nerovens noticed that Sir Lycus had hired a whole lot of mercenaries, many of them Galish or Picts.

Sir Gherard, following up a random family event from 497’s winter, learned that his mother had been cursed by a witch. Upon further investigation, he discovered that the witch was the local herbalist and wise woman, and his mother’s curse was a severe rash. He consulted with his father-in-law, who said that he would do whatever Sir Gherard advised. Gherard said he had to think about it.

Learning of war in Norgales, Sir Harvis sent his relatives Sir Morris and Sir Bryant to see if King Pellinore needed aid.

At Pentecost court, Gherard consulted many people regarding his problem: one source suggested ‘thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,’ and that the woman be burnt at the stake. Sir Charles, the resident heretic and mystic said he could devise a charm to protect Gherard’s mother, but he would need a vial of her blood to make it. Gherard refused, to Charles’s ambivalence. Father Tewi told Gherard that his mother should turn to prayer, because a witch has no power over a pious woman. Bishop Roger suggested she might find solace at the Amesbury Priory. Gherard, a Roman Christian, took this advice with some skepticism. Sir Harvis suggested Gherard try to consult with Merlin, and found out that Sir Charles might know where Merlin was, and to visit him later that season.

Meanwhile, news from the Saxons- several holdings on the southern edge of Salisbury had been raided by Saxons, but none of the player knights. More alarmingly, several holdings near the eastern borders had been raided by knights from Silchester! When Prince Cynric of Wessex was confronted over failing to provide protection, he said they only agreed to provide protection from Invasions, which a raid was not, but perhaps Salisbury would swear fealty, and receive a greater level of protection…

In addition to Prince Cynric of Wessex, there were messengers from Sussex and Essex, both demanding tribute. Countess Ellen (with some advice from the player characters) decided to continue to pay tribute to Wessex, especially since Wessex had been pretty successful at invading the lands of those who refused to pay, but not pay Essex or Sussex. Futhermore, she would send messengers to neighboring lords, to try to form alliances.

Also at Pentecost was Lady Rhonwen, Countess of Rydychan. Rhonwen had arrived in Salisbury, and was now staying as a guest of the Countess. Sir Gherard got a chat with her and learned that the three brothers had usurped the county. The pound signs in his eyes were visible- if she were married and her lands retaken, that would be quite the wealth for the taking.

After the feast, Countess Ellen had a mission she gave to Sir Hermel: travel through Jagent County to Cornwall, and meet with Sir Cador of Cornwall, and escort him and his party to Amesbury Abbey in Salisbury. There was also a message to be delivered to Count Angor of Jagent. Details of what to expect were somewhat slim. Dutiously, Hermel gathered his friends and they set off.

They met with some Jagent knights, and were escorted to Count Angor’s castle. The Jagent knights seemed to have a hard time keeping a straight face- they found something very funny. When they arrived at the castle, the source of their amusement was clear- Count Angor, ‘in accordance with ancient tradition’ required all guests to sing for their supper- literally. One by one, all the knights failed their Singing checks, and were escorted to the stables, where they were served meager provisions. Sir Hermel’s squire turned out to have a lovely singing voice, critically succeeding in his Singing roll, and returned later to describe the sumptuous feast. Everyone agreed that the hospitality left something to be desired.

The knights pressed on to the border with Cornwall, and met Sir Cador, leading four other Cornwall knights, and a horsedrawn wheelhouse. Sir Cador was very protective of whatever/whoever was in the wheelhouse, not letting anyone get near. Sir Harvis remembered that Cador was the nephew of Queen Ygraine, and was immediately suspicious of him.

Followers of this campaign may recall that Sir Harvis was the younger brother of famed Sir Bersules, who like King Uther, fell tragically in love with Queen Ygraine, and found it to be his undoing. After the death of Uther, Bersules seduced the Queen (or more truly, it was she who seduced him), and was stabbed to death by her, as vengeance for his slaying of Duke Gorlois. As a result, Sir Harvis had a Hate passion for Ygraine and her family.

It was not long on the road before it was discovered that the passengers in the wheelhouse were Queen Ygraine and her handmaidens, attempting to travel incognito. It was learned that King Idres of Cornwall (not to be confused with the Duchy of Cornwall) had laid siege to the Castles of Terrabil and Tintagel, and once Terrabil fell, Queen Ygraine surrendered Castle Tintagel on the condition that she and her followers be spared. King Idres offered to let her stay in Cornwall, but she decided she was better off fleeing elsewhere.

Traveling back through Jagent was largely uneventful, they stopped at a few manors, though after Queen Ygraine was advised of Count Jagent’s strange customs, they decided not to stay the night there (though they did stop to receive Angor’s reply to Countess Ellen’s message). Pressing on into Salisbury, Sir Gherard was rather offended that the Cornish knights insisted in riding fully armored- he protested, citing that Salisbury was surely safe. However the other knights decided the prudent thing to do would be to armor themselves as well, following Sir Cador’s example.

Sir Gherard remained in riding leathers, and scouted ahead, and it was wise he did, for he soon discovered a Saxon raiding party, 20 strong, let by several Heorthgenants. He quickly returned, and was able (with the help of his squire) to fully don his armor in time.

Tactics were discussed- Sir Nerovens and others wanted to organize a lance charge, which would be devastating against the unmounted Saxons, but Sir Cador insisted on staying near the wheelhouse in case there were other threats. Deciding that mixed tactics, such as half the knights doing a lance charge and half staying back would be disastrous, the knights decided to stand firm with the Cornish knights.

This was our first real combat of the Campaign, and had several modifiers in place: the on horse vs. foot bonus, splitting skill due to multiple opponents. Ulysses, Nerovens and Harvis all invoked their Hatred of Saxons, and to good effect; Hermel and Gherard were taken out quickly- Hermel by a fearsome Heorthgenant, and Gherard by a Saxon warrior with a lucky crit. Ulysses also faced a Heorthgenant and defeated it, but not before he was dealt many fearsome blows himself.

At Castle Vagon, they injured knights received Chiurgery from the monks (much to Sir Ulysses’s protests). Of course one of the monks botched a surgery on Hermel, only feeding into Ulysses’s suspicions. Now further into Salisbury territory, Hermel and Gherard chose to stay and recuperate, but Ulysses pressed on, hoping to find a healer that wasn’t a British Christian surgeon. Hermel found a sympathetic damosel to nurse him back to health.

They made it to Amesbury Abbey without incident.

Gherard, along with Ulysses and Nervovens went then to his estate to investigate the wise woman. Sir Ulysses asked her to heal him- I rolled a d20 for her skill, and got a 3, so her attempt naturally failed. She covered his wound in a strange poultice, which itched severely and gave him quite the rash. Sir Nerovens, a pagan, interviewed her, and deduced she was no witch, but rather a fellow pagan and a simple herbalist. Her mother had been the village herbalist and she was trying to follow in her footsteps, but had not developed the skill yet. Gherard decided that no crime had been done, and allowed the woman to follow her practice.

Ulysses stayed another week to recuperate, and the woman- now given a name, Bronwen- rolled a 1! Her methods worked, and he was healed.

(Reviewing the rules for Deterioration and Aggravation, I see that I was much more generous than what the rules present- I halved healing rates for those Knights who were traveling, when the Aggravation rules would assign 1 or 2 damage per day of travel. Also, I was only rolling a d3 instead of a d6 for Deterioration, thinking that it was the same as First Aid.)

Meanwhile, Harvis and Hermel paid a visit to Sir Charles, to discover that he was hosting Merlin! Merlin revealed that he was going to go on a great journey, visiting Gaul, and Rome, and perhaps sites further still, waiting for the right time to return to Britain. He revealed that the Forest Sauvage was not harmful, and was likely to be around for some time. He offered the knights a boon: Harvis asked about the status of his sister Violet: Merlin revealed that she was still alive, and perhaps fate would see them reunited. Hermel asked for help for his sickly child, to which Merlin said he knew someone who might be able to help.

(There was a possibility of a short scenario to be ran here, of escorting Merlin to London, but it was quite late in the evening by this point, and the knights were scattered and wounded. However I think the year was plenty adventurous.)

In Winter, everyone had been raided by Saxons. Some knights managed to make their Stewardship rolls to mitigate the damage. Between the raid and paying tribute, most of the knights had to drop to a Poor standard of living, and those who maintained an Ordinary one (Nerovens and Ulysses, I believe) did so by dipping into their savings. Belts were tightened and Saxons were cursed.

Then some random events were had- my favorite part of the Winter phase. Ulysses’s bastard brother Owain had a strange child, and Hermel’s half-brother Arnold married upwards (possibly a minor heiress, if he was an unlanded knight, otherwise a younger daughter with a limited dowry, in any case, a boon to the family.) One of Gherard’s bastard children died, and there was a wild rumor that his aunt had poisoned it. Best of all, Sir Bryant returned from Norgales in disgrace- he had been caught attempting to steal some hill ponies! Clearly he had been spending too much time around Sir Dyfed.

It is a cold and dreary winter, and the knights look forward to spring…

The Great Pendragon Campaign, 497

I started out this session by distributing some rumor cards. I haven’t used this technique before in the Great Pendragon Campaign, but I’ve done it in other games. Write a bunch of rumors down on some index cards, and hand everyone one at random at the start of each session. In this case, the rumors were pieces of news from different parts of the world: they found out that King Idres was marching north in Cornwall (of interest to many Salisbury and Silchester knights, who had gotten land in Cornwall after Uther’s invasion), the mysterious appearance of the Forest Sauvage, the Supreme Collegium’s failure to name Ulfias (or anyone else) High King, King Clovis of the Franks getting baptised, and King Lot having a son and heir born.

One of the key techniques here is to come up with more rumors than there are players. The remaining rumors will get shuffled into the next batch, which in this case simulates the fact that news spreads unreliably, that we are in the Dark Ages after all, and means that I don’t know in advance which tidbits of information the players will get and which they won’t. Some of these are plothooks, some are foreshadowing, and some are just rumors, with little immediate consequence for the players.

Then we started play with the year’s Pentecost feast, another chance to make contacts, flirt with eligible ladies, and decide what to do for the year. In this case, the knights noticed that some of the knights who had stayed home last year (like Sir Bandelaire) were present but others (like Sir Lycus, more on him later), were not.

Sir Hywel and Sir Ulysses tried to get more information about the Forest Sauvage, and talked to Sir Cicero, a knight with a reputation for being a notorious rumormonger, who gave him some theories on the origin of the forest, most of them contradictory. Sir Hywel also felt that they needed to do a better job training more knights, which Marshall Sir Elan (son of beloved Sir Elad) enthusiastically agreed, and he charged right outside to do it, getting him an Enthusiastic check.

Sir Hermel spent his time flirting with the ladies of the court, particularly wealthy heiress Lady Elfrida, the richest heiress in the county, and Lady Jenna. He also thought about hosting a friendly competition, with jousts and board games, some sort of proto-tournament. That sounds like a great idea, and also really expensive. I told him his Steward would look into the pricing and get back to him (in other words, the GM needs to research what you want to do.) I doubt that Sir Hermel can afford this on his own, but perhaps with a wealthy patroness…

Sir Gherard was a bit of a wallflower, but Sir Hywel tried to play matchmaker, socializing with his sister-in-law Lady Indeg (widow of former player-character famous knight Sir Bersules), hoping to set Cath, her youngest daughter up with him. Sir Gherard proposed a hawking expedition, and it turned out that Indeg and Cath were avid falconers.

Of course, it’s going to take more than a couple of flirting, courtesy, and falconry rolls to court and marry a wealthy Lady- however most of the player knights have gotten the attention of the ladies of the court.

The biggest decision of the court was what to do about the Saxons: representatives from Essex, as well as King Cerdic’s kingdom of Wessex were both here to demand tribute: 100 head of cattle and 100 pounds of silver. Countess Ellen let it be known that she was going to ‘consult with her advisors,’ which savvy Nerovens figured out meant ‘figure out what her knights will support’- if she wants to keep her seat for herself and her son, she needs to keep the loyalty of these knights!

Nerovens reasoned it was best to pay Cerdic’s tribute- they had paid Essex last year, and it was farther away, so the risk of being raided seemed somewhat less. His grand hope was to get the Saxons fighting each other- perhaps by calling to Cerdic for assistance against the eventual raids. A bold move.

Anyway, Pendragon doesn’t really have a skill for convincing people- what I’ve used in the past, and what I did here, is ask the player to choose a Trait or Passion that they are embodying/hoping to instill in the target. In this case, Nerovens gave a big speech, and angled for Energetic- let’s all band together and support the County! He got a Critical Success, and there was much agreement from the assembled knights.

He was able to talk to Countess Ellen later, and she let him know that she’d like him to talk to some of the knights in the region that had either not affirmed their loyalty or did not owe her homage. The subtext was that she was talking about Sir Lycus.

Sir Lycus holds Llud’s Hall, an important castle in eastern Salisbury, which is notable for being a royal holding: whoever holds it does so directly in the name of the King, in the name of the count- so he is not a vassal of the Count. (Of course, there’s no ‘top-level’ ruler in the Anarchy Period, making his holding an independent fief.) Llud’s Hall is only ever gifted, which means it reverts to the King upon death of the holder.

The previous holder, Sir Llywel, died at the Infamous Feast, and Sir Lycus took control of the castle, claiming right as Sir Llywel’s brother. Does he have the right to do this? Probably not. Is anyone going to stop him? That remains to be seen. (Also somewhat important in this- the previous holder before Sir Llywel? Nerovens’s father.)

After all of this, I told the players that it was up to them to figure out what they wanted to do for the year- that this would have a lot more freedom than the Age of Uther, with fewer scripted events that demand, or heavily suggest participation. There were two frontrunners that people were interested in: do some raiding in Saxon lands, or go see what the deal with the Forest Sauvage was.

The most direct way seemed to be through Silchester, then to Rydychan county, then to the Forest. Riding into Silchester, they encountered a patrol of knights from Levcomagus, led by Sir Alvin. A herardly check later revealed that Alvin was the son of Sir Arvel, who was hung for theft by Count Roderick in one of the first few adventures. Sir Alvin was here to defend the borders of Silchester, complete with a Hate: Salisbury knights passion.

He challenged the knights about their business, and they said that they were seeking to travel through, and go to the Forest Sauvage. He said he’d been given no direction to let anyone through. One of the knights (I don’t recall who), offered a joust of honor, to which Sir Alvin accepted, eager for a chance to best a Salisbury knight. It was Sir Harvel who represented the players.

Both knights inflamed by Passion, in the first two passes Sir Alvin struck true, doing damage to Sir Harvel, who made his Horsemanship rolls to stay seated. On the third tilt, Sir Harvel (pulling his blow to do less harm, but inflicting the same knockback- note that Sir Alvin was most certainly not doing this), struck Alvin’s shield, and Alvin proceeded to botch his horsemanship roll, flying from the saddle in a particularly ignominious fashion.

(Consulting the Border Challenge entry in GPC after the fact, it looks like what Sir Alvin should have done was escort the knights to Levcomagus, and let his lord, Steward Cadwallon decide what to do, which might have result on them being allowed passage with an escort, being turned away, or even being captured and held for ransom! Perhaps Alvin’s youth and defeat made him overconfident, something the more pragmatic and callous Cadwallon will be unlikely to tolerate in the future.)

They made their way to Rydychan without incident. Looking over the list of named NPCs I had provided, they note that Lady Rhonwen (I couldn’t find a name for her, other than Rydychan in GPC, so I made one up), is supposed to be a very wealthy widow- is she in need of a husband, perhaps?

Another border challenge, this time by some Rydychan knights, these guys mostly told the knights to go about their business, but to stay on the main road and go straight to their destination. “In the name of the Lords of Rydychan.”

(Again, probably should have done a full border challenge here. I was trying to save time and get straight to the forest, but it all works out because…)

The knights decide they should pay a visit to the local lord. They head to the local castle, just off the main road, and encounter ten knights, led by Sir Basile, who’s shield depicts three black wolves on a white field. He demands they state their business, and is very Suspicious- when they say they go to the Forest, he challenges them, asking them to prove they are not spies. Those players who are trying to make overtures, I have them make Trait rolls- Ulysses rolls one and fails, someone gets a success (I’m going for more successes than failures here), and then Hervel gets a critical success on an Energetic roll, about how eager they are to go on a Quest.

Sir Basile nods- he went on a few adventurous quests as a younger knight, and perhaps driven by nostalgia, gives them leave to travel through these lands. He sends a knight to travel with them.

They try to ask a few questions of their escort- what’s the deal with this Sir Basile guy? Where is Countess Rhonwen? Their escort is uneasy, and doesn’t answer, and Gherard observes that maybe they shouldn’t ask so many questions if the locals are worried about them being spies.

They get to the Forest, after spending a night in a local village, and enter one of the paths. They learn that even experienced hunters have gotten lost inside, and that animals have gone missing. The Forest Sauvage is difficult to travel, even on what now passes for a path: it requires a Hunting roll at -15. Hervel, the best hunter (trained by King Pellinore himself) has a Hunt 15, so cannot succeed.

They get lost in the woods for a week, ending up at a peasant farmstead. This family of peasants is happy to aid the knights, and just happy in general (suspiciously happy, according to Nerovens. Gherard makes the Stewardship roll and figures out that they aren’t having to pay taxes to anyone, so get to keep all of their harvest.) The peasants offer their house to the knights, who graciously refuse, and camp out in the field. The peasants give the knights directions, saying the village is only an hour or so to the south.

During the night, strange lights are seen in the distance. Someone with a lantern, perhaps? Nerovens, getting Reckless, goes into the forest to follow them- so, given the forest, and the darkness, has to roll Hunting at a hefty penalty. He critically fails, and ends up taking a tumble down a ditch. It ends up being a major wound, and he loses a point of con and cracks some ribs for his trouble, and falls unconscious.

He wakes up the next morning, and the rest of the party is able to head out and regroup with him. They head south back to the village, and indeed, it’s only an hour of travel. They’re right where they were, a week of travel ago.

I gave everyone some glory for Entering the Forest Sauvage, and some to Nerovens for Chasing a Will-o-Wisp- a misadventure is still an adventure!

They go to the village priest, and I roll a d20 for his Chirurgery skill- a 5! He fails, and tells them he can’t do much for Nerovens’s wounds right now. (Ulysses, who is Suspicous of British Christians, AND of physicians, scoffs.)

The knights make their way to Oxford, which as a larger town with large monastery, might have a better healer. On the way there, Nerovens gets his weekly healing, but also suffers 1d6 damage for deterioration. I roll a 2- he doesn’t get any worse or better. I believe his hp were low enough that a 6 could have killed him!

At Oxford, they meet Sir Beleus, who is rather jolly and hospitable, much more so than his older brother Basile. He is compassionate to Nerovens’s plight, and makes the monastery (and the markets of Oxford) available to them. I assign the Chirurgeon here a skill of 15… and he botches. Sir Nerovens’s condition actually gets worse. Ulysses struggles not to say I told you so.

There’s nothing to do but to wait a week for the monk to try again. Another deterioration roll- Nerovens still manages to stay alive. The next try, the monk makes the roll. Nerovens will live to fight another day.

Clearly unequipped to face the trails of the Forest Sauvage, and one of their number injured, they return home to Salisbury, wondering what’s going on with Countess Rhonwen. Perhaps they will soon find out…

The Great Pendragon Campaign, 496

After a four month hiatus, the Great Pendragon Campaign is back.

Since I’m running as part of a larger gaming group, a significant part of the session was just people getting their table assignments: a raffle system, where everyone gets a raffle ticket, and when your number comes up, you can join up into a game. This time we had eight games, each with room for five players. Even in the first session, I found running for five much more comfortable than running for six (or for seven, as I had for the first few sessions of the Uther phase!). From looking around the room, it seemed like most of the games were full, but several still had room in them, which seemed nice if we had new people joining in the middle of a campaign.

Out of the five players, we had two returning, the player of famous Sir Bersules, and the player of almost as famous Sir Hewgon the Sheeprider (and others). Of the three new players, one had played before, and two were new to it.

For this character creation, I used information from The Book of Sires. I found the tables within to be much more interesting than the basic tables in Pendragon 5.2, especially since they expand to contain the years 486-495, and each individual year has its own entry, instead of grouping some years together. The bad news is that adding that many more entries took more time, and each year had additional handling time. I think we spent most of the session rolling on those tables, with me reading from the book and telling people their results. I did like how much detail Book of Sires went into regarding the period of Vortigern’s rule. I suspect the next time I do this, I’ll make my own tables inspired by Book of Sires, and pick twenty or so key years, rather than rolling for every year.

After that, I had a packet with a step by step walkthrough for making a character. Over the course of the rest of that session, and the first hour or so of the next, we came up with our knights:

Sir Harvis- played by Sir Bersules’s returning player. Harvis is Bersules’s former squire, who squired for King Pellinore(!) and has now returned to Salisbury. The player asked if he could get some glory for having squired for a king- I’m leery of handing out glory for pre-play events, but this one was established through play of his previous character, so I gave him 25 glory. Harvis is famously Energetic, and broad shouldered. Through his experience with King Pellinore, he had the opportunity to roll for a Passion Love: Hunt, and ended up with a 4. It turns out that hunting is really a lot of bother, when you get down to it.

Sir Ulysses- played by Hewgon’s player, who rolled up a new family history and dynasty. Ulysses is Merciful (and rather humble, as we will see in play.) He’s the one player who made Appearance his clear dump stat, with a lisp and the tip of his nose missing. His family’s bloodline skill is Dancing, which is a bit humorous for the homely knight.

Sir Harmel the Fourth, an Indulgent knight, with sea blue eyes and dimples. So far Harmel seems to be pretty full of himself, but you’d be too if you had a number after your name. I think Harmel ended up with a 15 or 20 Recognize due to a family bloodline trait- he’s got a keen eye for faces.

Sir Gherard, another Energetic knight, Bright Eyed, with a Patrician Nose.

Sir Nerovens, a Just knight, with regal stature and dark mysterious eyes. From the random tables of The Book of Sires, his father did many great deeds in battle against Vortigern, and was rewarded by Uther with a gift of a large Estate. Nerovens has grown up rich, and thanks to his bloodline has an Intrigue of 20. This player has expressed an interest in being a plotter- I’m eager to see what he will come up with.

The other stumbling block in character creation was rolling up people’s families. I found a sheet that had spots for 20 family members, and rolling a d20 to see who ends up with a random event (instead of rolling a random family relationship.) A lot of the families needed fudging, since the number of young knights generated was higher than the number of siblings, for example, but we got some interesting starts at a family tree, and I told people it would be fine if they filled in 10 or more of the list.

Our game opened with Pentecost Court in 496. Lady Ellen, Countess of Salisbury, is Regent, her son Count Robert being but four years old. However, his older sister and heir, Lady Jenna, is now sixteen, and this Pentecost doubled as something as a coming out party for her. Many nobles arrived with gifts, including Sir Brastias the wandering knight, and Sir Cadwallon the Younger, the new Steward of Levcomagus.

Some simple die rolls were made to get the game going and start earning the players those checkmarks: a Stewardship roll (of which only Gherard made) to identify that almost 120 knights are supposed to be sworn to Lady Ellen (or technically, her son Robert), and only half that had attended. He also realized, with a crit, that while some of those knighthoods were unfilled, there were many who purposely did not attend, a snub to their liege. A Recognize roll was made for a few people- Nerovens and Ulysses both fumbled their rolls to recognize Sir Brastias- they know him, and mistakenly believe a rumor that he was a traitor, and in league with Sir Jorddans, the Mad Knight who poisoned the King and the Lords of the Realm!

Sir Charles (now an NPC) arrived with a bag full of captured Saxon idols he sacked, a gift for the Countess and her daughter. The rumors were aplenty about Sir Charles: that he was a heretic and a sorcerer, utterly without honor, treasonous, and cavorts with witches. Nerovens got a crit and knew that only most of that was true (like the cavorting with witches- Charles was romantically involved with Nimue, a Lady of the Lake!). I felt these expositionary rolls were helpful in getting the new players up to date about what was going on.

Many of the knights attempted to dance with one or more of the ladies at the feast, for many eligible heiresses and widows were present. Gherard was perhaps the most charming of them all, and danced with many ladies, including Lady Jenna herself. Meanwhile Nerovens botched his dancing roll, and stumbled backwards into a certain Sir Bryce.

Those from the previous game know Sir Bryce as a Levcomagus knight with a large mustache and a short temper. While dining at Levcomagus, he pulled a dagger and threatened to stab a player knight, and at Castle Terrabil, angrily jousted with Bersules and took the loss out on his own squire- Gruffen, who then ran away, squired for Bersules, and was presently squiring for Harvis! I imagined that squire Gruffen was doing his best to avoid being seen, and that any failed squire roll on his part would result in his being spotted by Bryce.

Nerovens tried (badly) to diffuse the situation with humor, but things only escalated, with the Levcomagus knights all standing up ready to back Bryce in a fight, and then the Salisbury knights all getting up… and then a long tense moment. None of the players seemed to want to be the one to throw the first punch (and no one was particularly Reckless or Proud), so it turned out that it was Cadwallon, who shouted for his men to sit down, and for Bryce to shut up. A humiliating moment for Sir Bryce, one he will not soon forget…

Later in the evening, a horn was sounded, and the Marshall of Salisbury, Sir Elan, an experienced knight but inexperienced commander, commanded his knights to get arms and secure the battlements. They gathered up whatever they could, and rushed to see what threatened the city of Sarum.

By the last rays of the sunset, they were able to make out a group of riders- 20 to 25, Saxon Heorthgenants (!), mounted (!!), waving a flag of truce (!!!). Their leader dismounted and approached, saying he had a message for Countess Ellen. Sir Elan offered to convey the message, but the Saxon said he was sworn to deliver it personally.

Sir Nerovens, with his famously high hatred of Saxons, felt compelled to do something, so he went downstairs and insulted the messenger to his face, calling him Swine. The Saxon seemed unmoved, perhaps amused by this, and continued, alone with no escort, to Ellen’s throne room.

There he introduced himself as Prince Aescwine, son of the Saxon King Aethelwine, of Essex, with an offer that the Countess pay a tribute of 100 head of cattle and 100 pounds of silver, and in return they would have protection and would be safe from raids.

I have to say, I really appreciate the boldness of Prince Aescwine, strolling right into the court of a Christian ruler and demanding tribute. As a Prince, he’d be worth a fair ransom, if an unscrupulous host was willing to violate hospitality. Also interesting to me that Essex isn’t really convenient for raiding into Salisbury- there’s much easier targets nearby, and one would have to ride through at the minimum Rydychan or Silchester.

At any length, the Countess responded that she would discuss it with her advisors and get back to him. He left, and there was much hubbub about this, whether it was right or not, or even a good idea or not to pay this tribute.

We jumped forward a few weeks, with the knights on garrison duty, patrolling the borders. They had learned that the Countess had decided to pay the Tribute, and decreed that every manor contribute one cow and 100 pounds of silver. There was some idle talk about giving their worst cattle, or trying to send lesser coinage, but even after grumbling, everyone agreed that they would follow the edict and contribute their portion. Opportunities for Trait checks were gained, based on one’s attitudes- Just, Selfish, Loyalty-Lord, or Prudent were common ticks.

I was going to go right to the refugees encounter, but the players decided they wanted to call upon one of the knights who had refused to attend Pentecost court. So I came up with one Sir Bandelaire, who they called upon. The not very hospitable knight welcomed them into his home “stay as long as you like… just don’t empty my larder”, which several hospitality minded knights found rather insulting.

Insinuating that Bandelaire had perhaps been ill, Nerovens led the questioning as to why the knight had not attended Pentecost. His answer was that he did not want to serve a woman or a small boy, and that the realm needed ‘strong men of action.’ Pretty much everyone took exception to that, and took turns telling Bandelaire how wrong he was. Several arguments were made, about the realm needing to stand together against the Saxons, but it was clear that Bandelaire was not going to budge. A few knights brazenly insulted him and I docked them a point of hospitality (even if he isn’t a very good host, openly insulting him in his own manor is kind of a dick move.) Nerovens rolled an Intrigue to see if there was anything more behind this, and learned that there was something of a faction of knights who did not see Lady Ellen as worthy of their service, however this faction did not have a strong leader to rally around yet.

Moving on, they encountered some refugees from Hantonne to the south- another Saxon fleet had landed! (Is there no end to them?) The knights split, some that were Reckless and Energetic riding south to learn more of this, those that were more Prudent riding north to inform Lady Ellen. The advance group encountered more refugees, who said that Saxons had taken the port of Hantonne.

They spotted a small village, that was strangely not-on-fire. They asked the local peasants, and it turned out a group of Saxons had arrived and paid a visit to the local knight. Since the manor was not-on-fire either, they went forth to meet these Saxons. It turned out that they were tendering a message: the knight could swear fealty and homage to King Cerdic and keep his lands, or resist and die.

Several of the knights realized that this King Cerdic was the half Saxon, half Cymric son of Vortigern! Our rolling up family history, because the players immediately recognized the name, and decided they definitely did not like this Cerdic guy. The knights had reunited, and were considering fighting these Saxons, but Prudence prevailed and they parted ways bloodlessly. They called on the lord of the manor, a Sir Ysgarren (not to be confused with the Cornish Sir Ysgarren once met during the Battle of Castle Terrabil), who was seriously considering this offer. They suggested instead that he come north to Salisbury, where Lady Ellen would be sure to accept his service.

We got through our first winter phase, a tough one, with the knights having to pay tribute. I taxed each of the knights two pounds, which in retrospect seems like a bit much, since the price of a cow is half a pound. I also taxed their earned glory by 2 points, since their income is lowered, but in retrospect I think they should get the full glory award, since the still earned that much, they just had to spend some of it. We also got to try the new random family event table I made- Sir Harmel IV had a cousin who was thought dead return home, Gherard’s uncle was being blackmailed into not paying his tribute, Neroven’s brother, a household knight, fought off some raiders and was rewarded with a manor, Ulysses’s uncle made a social blunder, and to the surprise of no one, one of Harvis’s uncles was accused of adultery. Some grist there for the next session!