The Crusade (2011)

Overview

What it is, where it came from, and what I was smoking at the time :)

The Crusade is a semi-historical campaign, starting in Normandy, the day after New Year’s Day (Mar 25) in 1173A.D., that would gradually become a Monster Hunters story as it progressed. It features a small group of PCs, joined with a group of four other NPC pilgrims, led by a venerable former-Crusader. Instead of the original cinematic/episodic presentation, I opted for a “sandbox procedural,” “Adventure Towns” approach—I would not be leading the Players, so much as following their lead (in theory, at least). Story-wise, although not specifically cinematic/episodic, it borrows heavily from the TV series, Supernatural.

The original concept for this campaign was a bit of an accident; in the course of researching something else, I came across this website, which features a virtual Medieval pilgrimage from France to Jerusalem, complete with all the stops along the way. As I flipped through it, I thought how interesting it might be to use this site as a guide for a Crusades-based campaign that focused on the journey to the Holy Lands, as much as the events after reaching it. It was to be a TV series-based concept, with a strong “episodic” feel. Unfortunately, when I eventually pitched the idea to the group, it came at a bad time, and was shelved.

In mid-2009, I ended up getting involved with a “backup” game, a group playing GURPS online, via Fantasy Grounds, which I currently refer to as the Olympus group (as opposed to the Core Group, to which this website is primarily dedicated). It was served, at the time, by a single GM (AKA “Ronnke”), who ran several campaigns (all GURPS), including Traveller: Interstallar Wars, Shadowrun, and Banestorm. I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up running something for that group, eventually. When I did decide to run for Olympus, I decided that it would be a good opportunity to revisit the Crusade concept, for a number of reasons: the group was small (three players+GM), which would be a better fit for what I wanted to do; it allowed the “regular” GM a chance to use his Banestorm character (with some revision; he only rarely got to actually play, at the time); and I had recently come across Eureka, which would enable me to quickly come up with new episodes. This campaign would be my first time running for a group other than the Core Group. This campaign would also be my first time running a game online, via a “virtual table-top” (Fantasy Grounds).

Dramatis Personæ

Who played who, who they met there, and who tried to kill them

Player Characters

Player: Phil (Rigil Kent)
Kit Harington

Player: Kerry (Herodian)
Ron Perlman

Player: Brian (Ronnke)
Russel Crowe


The Pilgrims

Nicholas Woodeson, Ref:Rome

Walton Goggins, Ref:Justified

Norman Reedus, Ref:Walking Dead

Eddie Marsan, Ref:Sherlock Holmes (2009)


Execution

What I planned to do, and how I planned to do it

First Run, 19 Nov–16 Dec 2011

For this campaign, I wanted to something a bit less “scripted” than usual (for me), so I declared it a “sandbox procedural”; this means (in my terms, anyway) that we would be dealing with the day-to-day menial operations, tracking food usage, milage, expenditures and such—the “procedural” part—and that it would be an open world, and the Players could go wherever or do whatever they liked—the “sandbox” part. The open nature of the world was enabled by a combination of Google Earth imaging, lots of internet research available on historical topics and places, and the historical nature of the campaign itself—with human history as your setting, the world-building is already done for you. Therefore, if the Players suddenly decided to go to Rome instead, for example, I would have plenty of data to work with. Of particularly invaluable use is this site, which details historical intineraries to many Medieval shrines.

I borrowed from my Outlanders 2 experience, and would only work on the session's material in the week prior, as well as the lighter approach to the prep material. Although this campaign would be entirely digital-based, and would focus a great deal on graphics, it actually would not be much more so than the previous game (with all the PowerPoint stuff)—the only difference being the digitally-created battle maps and tokens (as opposed to drawings and miniatures on a physical table), for which most of the work was already done. The on-the-fly process allowed for more flexibility, should the Players decide to do something I wasn’t initially planning for.

I have stated that one of the most-important things to do, as GM, is to know your Players. In this case, with a mostly-new group (only Phil carried over from the Core Group, so far), I would have to learn as I went along. In this case, at least, the Players’ attendance had been miles more consistent over the year-plus that I played with them, so my old arch-nemesis from the Core Group would be nowhere to be found—and I wouldn’t miss him.

Other issues:
  • Regarding the “sandbox” nature of the game, it was my intent to engineer the situation such that I would not know what was next, nor the end—specifically, I did not want to arbitrate how long the journey would take from one point to another, and when the encounters would occur. I didn’t find a way to make it quite as random as I would have liked; so far, I just paced the encounters according to a “natural fit,” based on where the PCs were on the journey at the time.
  • I did quite a bit of work on my GM Random Tools, creating the Overland Travel page specifically for this campaign, and adding much functionality to the Plots page, which was used heavily for generation of travel events and personalities along the way. In addition to/conjuction with the GMRT, this was the first campaign to feature the use of the Tarot to randomly determine a great amount of NPC-related material. As for “story,” I used random-rolled plots from Eureka, with only a minor concept as a guide.
  • This was the first “real” campaign of mine to feature the use of Google Docs spreadsheets to track party-related and story-related data, both for the Players and the GM.
  • As part of my prep-work for the campaign, I watched the entire series of Supernatural, through Season 5, which provided a basic framework for the look-and-feel of the game that I would be shooting for. I also had some of the Cortex System’s Supernatural RPG material on-hand, for reference.
  • As part of the “official” Daniverse timeline, the setting would feature all the usual World of Darkness elements, folded in gradually, a little at a time. Rather than tackle the monumental task of clean-up and/or modernization of my WoD house-rules and material, I decided to take an as-I-need-it approach.
  • I planned to run for six weeks—just an arbitrary amount, long enough to get a feel for the characters, though I was prepared to run for longer.
  • As a “historical” game, I planned to use all the realistic GURPS rules options, although less-than-historical abilities would gradually become available down the road (pun intended).
  • As part of my usual bevy of GMing experiments, I intended to use a modified form of the “Relationships” mechanic from Cortex’s Smallville RPG, but that was dropped before game-time, due to lack of initial interest—maybe later.
  • The nature of this story, that is, that it keeps moving on from week to week, never stopping, presents a problem: opportunities for recurring characters are very few, and any Players that drop out for a period of time would likely find their characters months behind the rest of the group. Eventually, once the group arrives in Outremer, they will likely settle in, and this issue will be greatly lessened.

Synopsis

Where the Players went, who they saw, and what they conquered

Prologue: A Letter from Osmund:

Libris Primus: Francia

First Run, 19 Nov–16 Dec 2011

Day 1, Mon, 26 Mar ’73; After New Year’s Day:
  • Cold. Gathered at a small church in Rouen around first-light, vows taken and blessings received (except Br. Arthur, who didn't need to, and Lachlan, who chose not to). Set off: first stop, Pont-de-l’Arche, then Louviers
  • On the way: passed a local wedding; avoided toll at Pont-de-l’Arche bridge
  • Arrived in good time at Louviers; stayed at hospice
  • Duran observed a shooting star; made no wish
Day 2, Tue, 27 Mar ’73:
  • Set out in the morning for Évreux. Fog, lifted before noon. Allard complained of possible illness, but it amounted to nothing.
  • Passing through forest around midday, approached by a distraught old man who begged assistance, as his party had been set upon by bandits. Br. Arthur (on horse), Lachlan, and Duran fended off mercenary crossbow-ambush, throwing down the French soldiers with ease. Old man wounded in the ambush, but insisted that no great effort be spent on his behalf, lest any of his party come to their end. Having gone ahead of the others, the three spied bandits’ camp, eliminated sentries, and assaulted camp from two sides, putting the lot to sword and arrow before rest of pilgrims caught up; none escaped. Hostages were saved, and very grateful, though when mentioned, said they had no knowledge of the old man; the other pilgrims also said that the old man was gone, that they had somehow “lost sight” of him. Took rest at the camp, packed up all that could be carried of the spoils, parted ways with former-hostages, who were headed north to the abbey at Mount St. Michel
  • Passed on the road by a troop of mounted English soldiers headed south, sent in reponse to King Henry’s sons, whom they were told were plotting rebellion
  • Arrived at Évreux in good time; found a monastery-hospice to stay the night, so Osmund could make use of their scriptorium to write his journal
  • Sleep interrupted by a fire set in the common room by other travelers, attempting to warm themselves; only minor damage was done
Day 3, Wed, 28 Mar ’73:
  • Set out for the morning for Dreux; Osmund left a donation with the monastery to help with the fire damage
  • Other than a bit of bad food, and a pack of wolves that kept their distance, nothing of interest occurred
  • Arrived late at Dreux, city’s lodgings crowded with travelers; accepted hopitality of a young woman, keeper of an apothecary shop
Day 4, Thu, 29 Mar ’73:
  • Morning, found hostess, Anastaise, being bullied by some locals; bullies driven off. Anastaise asked for help: had been accused of witchcraft by dean of church of St. Peter, Fr. Gaël, in response to her discovery of his theft of a relic of St Peter, presumably for secret sale, and she expected to be killed, lest she be able to tell someone of her discovery; agreed to stay for a day or so and look into the matter
  • Deliberating, when armed thugs sent by Fr. Gaël broke into shop, bent on murder; thugs soundly beaten, such that they fled, but for two injured who remained, and were treated and questioned thoroughly; revealed that sale of missing relic to take place that eve, and that Fr. Gaël had absolved them of sins they were about to committ
  • Group split, some to watch over Anastaise, while Br. Arthur, Lachlan and Duran spied out the church of St. Peter. Evening, saw priest described by injured thugs, followed to a well where he retrieved a package; Lachlan surprised priest in alley, discovered priest was unknowingly sent to decoy them, Fr. Gaël being forewarned of potential meddling. The three caught up to other priest who was to do the actual selling, and lay in wait until the sale should take place; Lachlan and Duran leapt from hiding as the relic-smugglers were about to exchange the monies, and snatched away the relic from the priest’s hands, and ran away into the city before returning to the shop. Br. Arthur, burdened by his armor, waited in the shadows, then satisifed the deed was done, returned himself to the shop
Day 5, Fri, 30 Mar ’73; Good Friday:
  • Morning. Escorted Anastaise to Good Friday mass at St. Peter, presented missing relic as proof of innocence and Fr. Gaël’s guilt. Br. Arthur pled her case before the congregation, promised to bring the matter before Bishop of Chartres. Moved by Br. Arthur’s speech, the congregation became exceedingly angry at Fr. Gaël’s treachery, and might have thronged him there had he not made haste to leave by a back door
  • Set out for Chartres, provisioned by Anastaise. Before departure, Anastaise revealed that her mother had been burned as a witch by Father Gaël, and taking the three aside, divined their fortunes in secret
  • On road, heavy forest, caught up by armed riders demanding to take Allard, accused of murder in Kent; before he could be taken, man-hunters’ horses surprised by a serpent on the road, threw their riders and fled. Remaining man-hunters, outnumbered, made no attempt on Allard, but turned after their horses, promising they would return
  • Arrived late in Chartres; stayed at a hospice, there
Day 6, Sat, 31 Mar ’73:
  • Well before sunrise, Fergus awakened by a terrible dream, of dead, hanged, in trees, being eaten by animals from below; told only Hitch of dream, though was overheard by Lachlan
  • Morning. Br. Arthur received by Bishop’s Coadjutor, who received news of Father Gaël’s treachery, promised to deliver justice. Some wanted to stay, visit the Shrine of St. Mary, but Osmund insisted they should press on
  • Set out for Bonneval, where Osmund intended to spend Easter with a monk at the St. Florentinus’ Abbey, a friend from his wandering days after Emperor’s Crusade. Upon leaving Chartres to the West, and not East toward Paris as had been led to believe, confronted Osmund regarding the matter, who apologized and said that he was instead going to Bordeaux, and was concerned for group’s security, so he lied, though he would not say why he was going there, or what was the cause of his concern
  • A league or two from Bonneval, encountered woman struggling with broken cart; gave aid, and escorted to town
  • Arrived quite late at Bonneval. Received at abbey by Br. Albert, Osmund’s friend; fed and quartered. At evening, Br. Albert inquired of Osmund if he had kept to his “old profession,” and asked a favor of him; Osmund returned and asked aid in investigating some sinister disappearances
  • Went to scene of latest disappearance, at farm outside town; found tracks, a man fleeing from the farmhouse window, possibly burdened with the carrying of another man. Discovered a man watching from nearby bushes, pursued and siezed him. The man, Rousel, begged asylum of the church, which was granted by Br. Albert
  • Returned to abbey. Upon seeing Rousel, Br. Albert recalled a visitation, earlier in the day, by a Basque hunter named Belasko, a hermit living in an abandoned church outside of town, whom he had not seen in a year; Rousel confessed that he and his friends, the same that had been already taken, had killed the foreigner, Belasko, who had taken a young woman of the town as his wife, against her family’s wishes. Br. Albert had buried the man's wife and child a year ago; their deaths obviously the result of violence, though no one would speak to how it had occurred. Satisfied that a dead man could not enter Holy Ground, and that Rousel was safe, all went to bed
Day 7, Sun, 1 Apr ’73; Easter:
  • Midnight, a cry heard from within the abbey; sprang up and sought to find Rousel, but could not be found. Lachlan, again, found tracks of a man in flight from the abbey; followed tracks to town's wall, across river, up to abandoned church where Belasko was said to have lived. Set upon by pack of ravenous wolves, which were beaten back; wolves discovered to have been feeding upon the corpses of the missing townsmen, hanged from trees near the church. Br. Arthur, Lachlan and Duran first entered the church, found Rousel hanged from the rafters, though still living; and Belasko also was nearby, with a rook as his companion, declared that if the strangers had come to help this man, Rousel, then they should be as his enemies. Set upon by Belasko and his rook while attempting to help Rousel down; shot through by Lachlan’s arrows, Belasko’s wounds closed behind them, and fear fell upon the three, though they continued to struggle against the creature, which had the strength of many men. Osmund entered the church with the others, cried out that the rook was the source of its power, and Lachlan shot it with an arrow, such that it died. The creature’s power left it, and Br. Arthur ran it through with his sword, destroying it
  • Sunrise, returned to town. Rousel made to dig the graves for fallen comrades and Belasko, who was buried on church grounds next to his family
  • Spent day at Bonneval, celebrating Easter and resting. Asked many questions of Osmund, how it was that he knew of the creature, and he answered that he had encountered many forms of the risen-dead on his wanderings, and had learned how to combat them
Day 8, Mon, 2 Apr ’73:
  • Morning. Set out toward Châteaudun, with Br. Albert’s blessing. Journey to Châteaudun expected to take only half the day; Osmund wished to press on, and make camp. Rained slightly, most of the day
  • Surprised by English bandits; being armed and prepared to resist, were allowed to pass without further molestation
  • Stopped in Châteaudun to resupply before pressing on
  • Evening, made camp near the river Loire, some leagues on the way to Vendôme
Day 9, Tue, 3 Apr ’73:
  • Br. Arthur awakened by visitation from his deceased former-wife; led him to find Osmund speaking to a strange man. Br. Arthur confronted Osmund, who said stranger was an Angel of the Lord, called Pyriel, who bade him go on this pilgrimage, and who now had ordered him to continue on through Vendôme to an inn. Osmund extracted promise from Br. Arthur not to speak of this to the others, believed unready for such revelation
  • Struck camp after sunrise. Set out again toward Vendôme. Again, Osmund declared that he wished to press on through the city, and find an inn
  • Encountered group of fellow pilgrims making their way to Vendôme, and on to Tomb of St. James at Santiago de Compostela; traveled together to Vendôme; stopped there to resupply, and parted ways, the other group intending to remain for the evening
  • Arrived at the White-Horse Inn before sundown; secured quarters for the night. Heard rumours from local villagers drinking there of the inn-keep’s boy, Caïn, being cursed by the ghost of his long-dead mother, cause of some deadly accidents in the village
  • Retinue of local robber-knight, well-armed and numerous, entered inn and demanded taxes of all present. Prepared to resist, but inn-keep’s boy demanded thugs leave the inn; as the leader prepared to strike the boy, he attacked with spiritual powers, such that they all fled in great fear, and those villagers in the inn were also greatly frightened, and cowered. Osmund had convinced the village priest, there, to bless his cup of water, splashed the holy water on the boy, revealing him to be possessed by a demon; Br. Arthur set upon the boy to restrain him, and Osmund began an incantation of exorcism, but through guile and strength, the boy was able to wrest free, and fled to the wine-cellar. Osmund directed Br. Arthur, Lachlan and Duran to go after the boy, while he prepared against him. Caught up to the boy, as Osmund returned with salt, placing it in a line across the entrance to the wine-cellar, to prevent the demon from leaving; then directed the three to sieze and hold the boy while he again performed an exorcism ritual; the three struggled to hold the boy down as the demon struggled to harm its host, but they prevailed, and discovered a binding mark upon the back of the boy’s neck, which Osmund bade them spoil with a knife, at which the demon left the boy. Another patron entered and revealed himself to be possessed by a demon, declared that he knew of Osmund, striking Osmund with an old sickness such that he could not speak, and admonished the other pilgrims to carefully consider which side of “the war” they should take. Then the demon, known to Osmund as Balthazar, disappeared from sight, and released Osmund from his sickness
  • Questioned inn-keep, Denis, who confessed that, desiring the power to rebuff the robber-knight’s continued harassment, was told by a stranger of a ritual that, out of cowardice, he performed on his son instead, expecting to control him and use him for that purpose. He was very sorrowful at realizing his error, agreed to surrender himself to the church, and its justice. He also offered to allow the pilgrims to stay at the inn without payment; Osmund agreed, hoping to watch over the boy for the night, while his fate was decided.

Aftermath

What went right, what went wrong, and lessons learned

First Run, 19 Nov–16 Dec 2011

After a bit of a rough start, I consider this run to have been a good success.

The concept of working on the session only on the week before, once again, proved effective, although in retrospect, I’m considering taking a more-deliberate approach in the future, in hopes of reducing the weekly GM-grind, which can still be a bit too much for me—I tend toward the obsessive when it comes to this stuff, and it’s difficult to switch it off. With Outlanders 2, I had a better grasp of the upcoming story, but in this case, I had plenty of random-generated and pre-prepared material to work with that made it all work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t allow a particularly good margin for error; the witch-hunt session suffered from numerous plot-holes due to problems and delays in the preparation process, and the Players managed to locate and step in every one :P

I found Fantasy Grounds to be a joy to work with; I encountered no problems working with the software, or the virtual tabletop concept, in general. It really allowed me to go crazy with the use of graphics, moreso even than the PowerPoint stuff in the previous game.

On the negative side: I had hoped that the new Player-group would be more active on their message boards than the Core Group, a continual source of frustration for me in both cases, but something I’ve had to learn to live with. It was for this reason that the first session of this run was taken up with a lot of extra bookkeeping and scene-setting that I intended to be taken care of prior to the start, and thus, the session had to end in the middle of the first encounter (which ended up being a good thing, as due to lack of proper caffeination, I really buggered it up in places, and needed to regroup). I will continue to use the boards for between-session business, and encourage the Players to participate, but I’ve toned down my expectations in that regard.

I was looking forward to making heavy use of the new (at the time) GURPS Social Engineering, but the Players’ characters ended up being a bit deficient in that department (with the noteworthy and predictable exception of Intimidation), and as such, I had to scale it back a bit. This will, undoubtedly, clear up in time, as they gain experience. I also really wanted to get a chance to use the GURPS Monster Hunters 2 “Investigation” mechanic, which very-nearly made an appearance in the witch-hunt episode, but again, the Heroes™ weren't well-suited to investigation, so I had to back off—again, maybe later.

Other specific issues, positive and negative:
  • I really love the Pyramid 3/33 article, “The Deadly Spring,” and intended to use it fully, but when I started to create the historical crossbows I needed, I ran into some problems getting it all to work, and ended up dumping the bow-creation aspects of the article and the realistic damage (in favor of the unmodified damages listed in the Basic Set and Low-Tech, AKA “cinematic damage”).
  • The new GMRT pieces performed as expected, and were very helpful, though as of this run, there were still a couple of bugs that needed stomping—I’ll be getting to that, soon.
  • Pacing for this game was a bit of a learning-process, specifically, with regard to the procedural traveling segments—since I hadn’t done it this way before, I didn't know how much was too much, and how best to “deliver” the story. After the fact, I still think it needs a bit of polish, though I don’t consider it a failure.
  • In the course of things, I discovered that I don’t have a good plan for the sale of “combat acquisitions.” Although the “standard” approach works well enough in most games, this one has to take things into consideration like supply & demand, local stocks, etc., preferably without resorting to GM arbitration. The rules discuss “around” this issue, but don’t directly address it. I’m still looking for a satisfactory answer.

Owing to the greater stability the Olympus group has exhibited, I’m definitely looking forward to being able to continue this campaign for a long time.

GMs Only

Downloads forthcoming.

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