I have mentioned before that I like to run convention games and do so several times a year. The last few years have been mostly virtual, though this year I will be running games in person at least twice. However, the season has begun with virtualGROGMEET 2022. I am a fan of and listen to the Grognard files. I have written a couple of articles for their yearly magazine. I know it is not everyone’s taste, but they seem like decent blokes, and I have never had a bad player at any of the tables GROGMEET tables I have run.
757 CE: Beornred’s Flight
I have had a bit of an obsession with this historical figure for some time. He is a little-known king that ruled Mercia for part of the year 757 CE. His throne was taken by Offa, a more famous king of that Angle (Saxon) nation. The entire idea fascinates me: who is Beornred? Why was he so insignificant? Was he part of that conspiracy that killed the previous king?
It is within this historical context that I set about making a scenario about the flight of Beornred after he is defeated in battle by Offa. Historically he flees into exile and is then murdered. I decided to just focus on the flight itself and narrow it down further to four thanes who are preparing the king’s escape route.
Here are the four characters. They are skilled in things other than combat, but their combat skills are above average. I knew whichever way this went the characters might end up in at least one fight.
- Godwin of Warwick – a noble of Mercia
- Wilfred of Derby – a mercenary; also from Mercia
- Lothar Redhand – a Frankish soldier
- Ieuan (pr. yey-yan) ap Owen – a Welsh priest and soldier
I decided to use the latest BRP (Basic Role-Playing) SRD. For one thing I could cut down the skills needed to just those that might be useful in this scenario. It is a straightforward system and there would be no magic (as such, see below) to complicate matters. I also suspected (and was proven right) that all the players had touched either BRP or one of the associated games, thus making explaining things easy. The SRD pdf has all the information you need and is easy to access.
I also like that BRP is unforgiving without magic. Dead is dead and when building for the kind of heroic blood fest we imagine the Dark Ages were, this works very well.
The only change I made was to give each character a legendary ability to spend their Power Points on. Each cost just 2 PP and gave a short-term benefit, with each character having a unique ability. This was not magic as such, but more along the lines of a fictional / legendary attribute associated with these heroes. After all they were not just off the farm but had served Beornred as thanes and part of his household. It was only later that I realized this gave the characters an Arthurian feel and that I could have also used Pendragon for this scenario. Something I might try next time.
I had a few short notes. In general, I would give the players two choices: act a distraction or find safe houses for the king’s path of escape. If they chose the distraction I had prepared a few set pieces based on how they wanted to distract Offa’s forces. On the surface this would seem to suggest a combat heavy session. I cannot say for sure, because they chose the more diplomatic / subtle approach and that turned out to have a few nice combats as well as a great deal of showing of the flag for the locals. The players did a fantastic job of playing on their own characters reputations and stations to build rapport with the peasants and village leaders.
The tendency is for players to take any kind of authority (in fiction) or mandate and beat the potential friendlies over the head with it. Yet from the moment the characters rode into Horse Crossing, a fictional village south of Litchfield, they did none of that. I played the alderman of Horse Crossing as suspicious at first, but the players allayed his fears with their words and a few rolls. In short time they village told them of the group of Offa’s men who had taken over the bridge and sent two of their number to the village every morning. The players set a trap for the two soldiers and I noted that the Welsh Priest was not keen to just kill them from afar without giving them the chance to surrender. But when it came to hook and tong, the priest did his part as well. A couple of the players immediately started using their legendary abilities in the fight while others were more conservative with it.
They dispatched the two soldiers and then went to the bridge, capturing one man and dispatching the other two. Leaving word for the king that Horse Crossing was safe, they continued down the road and discovered a recently abandoned village with some evidence of violence. They also found tracks of wagons and horses. This was a good example of the players debating the evidence without much help from me. I just clarified what they knew and they talked it out themselves. I did not want to push them in any direction. They chose to follow evidence of the fleeing villagers down a narrow forest path. Here they learned of the atrocities of Offa’s soldiers and of a possible ferry over the Severn River into northern Wessex.
The next day the characters rode to the ferry and found Offa’s men there as well, torturing the ferry master and his wife. They scragged the VERY IMPORTANT NPC BAD GUY™ with their arrows and I had a good laugh at him falling to the ground. Even with an ambush of archers and a tough fight on the ground, the heroes cleared the ferry and saved the old couple. King Beornred would be able to cross the river and escape.
I am ever refining my prep and goals for convention games. I have observed that convention games are not as much play as they are a tour of a game and its mechanics. Or a sight-seeing trip through a cool backdrop but real play is absent. So, I set some goals:
- It will be real play
- Let bounce happen on its own
- Don’t try to finish (though we did)
- Put excitement in the preparation, do not improv excitement.
I feel like I met the goals, except #4. I did not add any extras to make the situations more exciting. I think I could have challenged the characters more and challenged the players more. Though they picked up on the inherent moral and ethical choices all by themselves; I did not have to lay out any of that for them. I was satisfied on how it worked out and may refine this scenario for further play at some point.
13 responses to “Con Season Opens: virtualGROGMEET 2022”
Questions on prep
Sean, I'm curious about your prep (if that's the right word?) for this session. You note that you only had a few short notes going in. But you also have a deep interest in the period and I imagine a bunch of Dark Age fiction and history in your head during play as well. With this game, it seems like you went in with some sketchy, punchy notes and then used the historical context as the lens through which your NPCs and other entities made decisions? I'm wondering if this was different from how you approached our LotFP game? If so, did any differences between LotFP and BRP make you approach prep differently?
I ask for a couple of reasons. For one, your Lamentations game is still a high watermark for me. The social context our characters navigated felt as weighty and constraining as the tunnels of the dungeon (and I bet it was the same for the Grogmeet players). In LotFP, I was totally imagining that you had pages and pages of information about the village, the families, and the history. But this post is making me wonder. Second, I'm still trying to figure out what the 'right balance' of prep looks like in different systems.
Prep has been on my mind a
Prep has been on my mind a great deal. Especially for specialty one-shots like 757CE. Used to be I had way too much written down and it became confusing for one, and an albatross that demanded use for another. Years of running RPGA games, getting in the requisite encounters to maximize XP and treasure, and trying to work around sometimes shite modules had produced some bad habits. I had the ability to wake up at 4am and run a module cold, because they were not that hard to run in most cases. So a place of over-prep and no-prep.
So here we are with BRP and LotFP. Both pieces of historical fiction (I had not thought about it until you brought it up), both born of ideas for use in other systems than the ones here. The basic difference was length of play; 4-5 sessions for LotFP-Pike n Howl and 1 session for BRP-757CE. I also had to make pre-gens for 757CE and curated the characters a great deal. But even then it took me a few hours to put them together.
For Pike n Howl, I had the document I sent over to the players that was full of background, though I think a better term is it was full of context. Enough information to make play worthwhile and a few rules tweaks. My own document for the village was the maps (two main ones + the labyrinth) and about three pages of NPCs. For that game the characters needed enough personality to make sussing out the werewolves a challenge. Each had a location and a basic attitude towards the characters and the werewolves. I guess you can think of them as rooms in a human dungeon. All told that’s about 8 pages of prep. I do not think I over-prepared, it felt like what was needed. And it remained unchanged unless I marked off a body.
Now for this convention game, which would last three hours, I had one half a page basically. To say that it was punchy might be accurate. I had one named NPC, Alwin the Alderman of Horse Crossing. Well and King’s Beornred and Offa, but they would never appear in the game. From there I had Old Man in the woods and his brother (and sister-in-law) at the Ferry. Giving them names would not have made them more real. And I had two big bads depending on which way the players chose – Dragon and Butcher. Dragon was the BBEG that got scragged at the ferry by good rolls and smart play.
However, in both cases there was a lot of mental prep. Use of correct-ish terms. Period appropriate names. The religious conflict for Pike n Howl and the deposing of a king in 757CE. I suppose I think of it as orienting myself so that I could deliver context as part of play. Although I will say for the latter game, the players provided a great deal of context themselves. And that taught me something as well. I did not need to justify every tree and leaf and river. The players bought into the fiction and because all were British Islanders, they provided details that I had left out. It was a great synergy that too much prep would have flat ruined.
But I think that is true of Pike n Howl as well. You, Sam, and Robby picked up on a lot of it and obviously did your own research to some degree. And that again provided some details and nuance, and conflict, that too much prep would have ruined.
I'll clean up my notes a bit and post them here or on my discord for folks to look at if they wish. For both games.
…about three pages of NPCs.
OK, this is really encouraging to me. Three pages seems just right for the kind of social context I want in certain games. It's two pages more than I would ordinarily prep, but still very practical and do-able. Also, I think it's really smart how useful and directed toward the situation the prep is. The way you zeroed in on "location and attitude toward werewolves and the PCs" actually just showed me how I should be prepping a 4e dungeon for next week. Thank you!
I’d like to understand #4 better
For me, anyway, your description of it and how it went in play are missing some set-up sentences or follow-throughs. Can you write about these with more filled in?
Absolutely, let me tackle #4
Absolutely, let me tackle #4 first since you asked specifically about it.
It is a reminder to myself to put the the cool stuff into prep, prior to play. It is okay to create an exciting encounter, as long as you do not try and manipulate play to show off your genuis. In addition, don't react to a scene gone badly or what I think is badly, by trying to make it better/ more fun. Just let the results be what they are.
The best exaample is the fight at the ferry. My notes were basically
It was meant to be a tough battle. And although the characters trounce the Dragon and his men, both at the ferry and in the patrol, I did not "Add in" any more soldiers to make things more "exciting".
I’m only interested in #4.
I'm only interested in #4.
What confuses me is that you stated that you did not manage to achieve #4, but your brief mention in the post and your comment describe how you did. Is there some way or detail in which you think #4 didn't work out?
Okay yes I see what you are
Okay yes I see what you are asking.
I think I succeeded in not mucking about when the encounter turned out to be flat. But I do not think I translated my excitement very well into actual good scene design. The encounters still feel a little too "con encounter" and not showing off either the system or the situation very well. The scenes were flat and bland. I felt I did not put the excitement into the encounters during prep.
You and I have been talking
You and I have been talking about this for a while now, e.g., Conversation: Where little situations come from.
In this case, I'm reminded of the post Troubles in Solar Town, which includes a pretty strong discussion about whether and how immediate situations/encounters are "good." I think I see some applications there to the experience you're describing, so let me know if you see any.
I realize it has been a
I realize it has been a minute since we have discussed this and I am digesting the recommended thread. So I may have a response in the next day or two.
Your phrase “I did not put
Your phrase "I did not put the excitement into prep" stood out to me for required critique as well as a good reason to review that conversation. I suggest that if you did do that (whatever one may mean by it), that the excitement would stay there and not be in play.
Manipulate play to show off your genius
"as long as you do not try and manipulate play to show off your genius."
One of my joys when GMing is some inspiration emergent during play. I enjoy showing off my genius when it shows up. So, Sean, where do you see the line between emergent play and manipulation? Of am I off on a different tangent?
No I think it is a good
No I think it is a good question. Everyone should show off their brilliance, but not at the expense of play or the brilliance of the other players in their response. I think the line is when you override procedures and play and authorities just to show off the shiny thing you came up with. When the set piece becomes a center piece, it becomes problematic. Or has the potential to be so. I suspect it is a fine line, to be honest. Ultimately the things you do in prep should inspire to players to respond with their own brilliance. Inspire might be too big a word, but I hope I am making some sense.
Ah! I agree completely.
Ah! I agree completely. Don't have anything to add.