Somewhere in what is now Northern Italy,
a late-summer’s day in the 650s CE
A stout horse with shaggy brown hair and measuring some thirteen hands trudged along a winding mud track, dragging along a half-laden wagon behind it. The driver was a man of middling years, named Adroald. His face and exposed arms weather-beaten from long hours on the road, and with streaks of grey in his hair and beard. He was a low ranking, landless freeman of the sort of social status whose widrigild, his worth should he be killed, would be set three-quarters of a century later at 150 solidi by a law of Liutprand in the twelfth year of his reign (No. 62, 724 CE). He was also a merchant, bordering on impoverished and his clothes running to threadbare, his bow old, arrows crooked and the lance that lay in the wagon back rickety to say the least. He had not always been so unfortunate, had been doing well even, but a legal case a few years back had turned sour, and erupted into violence. The aftermath had left him owing nearly all his wealth in compensation. A few more solidi to pay and he would have been enslaved and turned over to his victim, instead he remained free if poor.
The winding trackway they followed bisected the land into two parts. above them to the north were rising hills, land of poorer quality that hosted a smattering of ageing trees and served as pasture for goats and the herders who watched over them. Beyond those hills loomed the peaks of the alps, their tips snow free and bathed in the afternoon light of the late summer sun. The lower lands to the south held a promiscuous mix of crops, grains growing amidst olive trees and vines, all maturing well as harvest time drew nearer daily. The merchant breathed deeply, savouring the late summer weather until the horse picked up on his languid mood and slowed; its attention wilfully turned from its labours to a spray of yellowing grass that sprouted by the wayside. Recalling the goods that were languishing in the wagon back, his hands grew suddenly sweaty as he thought of the profit to be made. Perhaps this trip would be the one to fill his coffers once more? He flicked the reins impatiently, urging the beast onwards.
The horse suddenly nickered uncertainly, and it pawed the ground. Its eyes narrowed and its ears pointed forwards, directed towards a copse of trees that stood somewhat ahead of them, on the uphill side of their dried out and muddy path. Adroald glanced over, squinting as he scanned the boughs and undergrowth for the source of the disturbance…
My intentions in this blog post are to have some fun. As well as to put some of what I’ve been developing for the Langobard RPG into context, and to playtest some of the combat and arbitration rules. I guess it’s also become a festive present for you, dear readers, with the timing that the pieces are coming into place: merry xmas, have some bloodshed, violence and gore 😉
There’s still a lot to be done, of course, and the rules outlined and explored here are provisional rather than final. Since the last post I’ve anticipated some elements that will be done in the near future and re-worked a few minor details already present. Below is an outline of the character sheet as it currently stands, filled out to describe Aldroad from my setting the scene at the outset. (As an aside, I got the name, and others I’ll use in this blogpost, from Nicoletta Francovich Onesti, ‘The Lombard Names of Early Medieval Tuscany’, available via academia.edu. Another useful resource will be the Dictionary of Medieval Names from European Sources, edited by Sara L. Uckelman.
I’ve ghosted out the segments of the character sheet that haven’t been discussed in a blog post yet, although some are more speculative than others – the it where it says inventory is little more than a place holder, while I have a blogpost partially written for the two new motivations of ‘pride’ and ‘shame’. I’ve pretty much arbitrarily decided to let starting characters have seven (7) points in all to be distributed between the Motivations, while the Skills have ten (10) at level 1 (learner) and two (2) at level 2 (master).
Starting Character: Adroald
So let us consider the basic arbitration system, before turning back to what Adroald should attempt next. When a character wishes to attempt an action based on one of their skills, the underlying number of six-sided dice (or ‘#d6’) that they roll (their ‘dicepool’) is equal to the numerical value of the appropriate trait. The total number of d6 in the dicepool will be further modified by a difficulty rating determined by the Host of the story (elsewhere termed the ‘storyteller’, ‘gamesmaster’ or ‘GM’, and so forth, depending on the RPG system) to reflect the overall complexity of the task in question, environmental conditions, and so forth. Four main levels of difficulty are anticipated, although extreme circumstances may cause the Host to extend further beyond these as appropriate. The main modifiers to be used are given below, with a ‘fair’ difficulty being the most common.
- Easy +2d6
- Fair +1d6
- Tricky –
- Difficult -1d6
Lets put that in relation to the situation we left Adroald in. He’s trying to spot what has disturbed is horse, but without too much concern, his thoughts are elsewhere, particularly on getting his goods to market. The main skill he’ll be rolling for is notice, for which he has a trait rating of ‘1’. The Host determines that all things considered, the difficulty of the situation is pretty much equal, or ‘fair’, and bestows +1d6 modifier to the dicepool. Adroald’s player, then, rolls 2d6 (that is two six-sided dice), and manages to throw a ‘1’ and a ‘4’. So what does this mean?
Interpretation of the dice-roll runs as follows:
- If the sum of all the dice is equal to 6 or higher than whatever was being attempted has been accomplished, a success – albeit with the most basic of proficiency.
- For each dice that actually shows a ‘6’ however, the qualitative degree of success increases, through (1) good, (2) brilliant, (3) excellent and (4) outstanding, while (5) or more is deemed as near to perfect as could be imagined.
- Conversely, if the sum of the dice is equal to five or less, then whatever has been attempted is a failure.
- Regardless of the outcome, though, for each dice that shows a ‘1’ a flaw is added into the outcome, determined by the Host to suit the situation.
For Adroald’s attempt to scan his surroundings, the sum of his 2d6 roll is ‘5’. This means that his attempt is a failure: whatever spooked his horse has escaped his notice. Moreover, because one die shows a ‘1’ a flaw has crept into the attempt too:
Adroald glanced around, his forehead furrowed as he squinted and scowled towards the trees. He cast his eyes back and forth, while the horse snorted its discomfort. There was nothing there, he decided, his thoughts already turning back to regaining his lost wealth. With a shrug he flicked the reins sharply, and with a snort and a creak of the wagon’s wheels the horse grudgingly picked up its pace once more.
The whistling sound of an arrow cut suddenly through the air. Adroald whipped his head round, taken by surprise and flinched back as the shaft arced passed a hair’s breadth from his face. A red hot sting on his face, made him wonder if blood had been drawn even as he yelled in surprise. Looking round to see the source of attack, he was already flinging himself from the wagon as another arrow arced through the air towards him.
It missed by a span wider than his arms, and thunked into the trunk of an olive-tree further down the slope. Struggling back to his feet, Adroald crouched behind the wagon side, while the horse snorted with fear and pawed anxiously at the ground. Cautiously he raised his head to see if he could spot his assailant or reach his own weapons. His eyes were barely above the edge, when another arrow shot towards him, this one much closer. There was no way he could reach his own bow, he concluded, but the lance in the wagon back was just in reach. His assailant would surely run out of arrows soon, then it would be time to level the field. He crept to the back of the wagon, and peered cautiously over once more.
The next arrow came low, smacking into a sack in the back of the wagon and causing Adroald to duck back down once more, but not before his hand had grasped the shaft of his spear. Silence fell. Cautiously, Adroald peered round the back of the wagon towards the copse. Even as he did so, an enraged yell suddenly filled the air. His assailant was already halfway between the trees and the wagon, a sword now held in one hand. Seeing that his approach had been spotted, the attacker broke into a run, a grimace of fury twisting his all to familiar features. Banco, son of Causeradi, five years had passed and he was no longer a boy. But there was no mistaking his features, nor the scarred face and missing eye. The eye that Adroald had cost him.
A short while earlier
Banco sat well in his saddle, despite the sullen thoughts that weighed him down as he rode through barely familiar lands. He glowered at the passing hills, farmland and the occasional enslaved fieldworkers that he passed through his one good eye. The other socket was empty, a livid scar running onto his cheek from the cut that had cost him his eye. A court case some five years back between his father and a merchant, Adroald, who despite being a freeman was as dishonest as they came. When the case had come to blows, he had lost the eye on Adroald’s sword, a boy of fourteen years leaping to the defence of his ungrateful father. The sword that took his eye hung at his side now, it had been given to his father as part of the composition for his son’s eye, and his father had in turn given it to him.
At nineteen years old, Banco had grown strong, channelling his resentment into anger and proficiency at arms. There would be chance enough to use those skills in his life, he knew, but for now his now aged and sickening father treated him as a messenger who could take care of himself. His current chore particularly rankled; he was returning from arranging the transfer of a swathe of fertile land to a monastic foundation to the south. It might be for the good of old Causeradi’s soul, but it was putting further strain on the already stretched inheritance that he and his four half-brothers would receive. As a natural, but not legitimate son Banco’s portion would already be lesser, and hid father had squandered much wealth on pleasures when he was younger and now on the church as he grew sick and began to fret for his life.
But what made this chore so especially onerous, was that the land whose transfer he had just helped arrange, had been part of the settlement for his own eye. He fumed at the cruelty and unfairness of it all.
On the winding trackway ahead of him he noticed a merchant’s wagon, plodding along at a steady pace. It had been give years, but the face and figure of the man steering it had become etched into his mind. Resentment flared into anger, and casting his good eye over the surrounding landscape, a plan for vengeance unfurled.
He rode the horse at a gallop over the crest of the hill, scattering goats in all directions and causing their herder to run after them. From behind a stunted tree that grew atop of the hill he watched the steady progression of the wagon. If he rode down now he might be spotted too early, but there was a copse of trees close to the path. He could tether the horse here sneak down unnoticed and launch his ambush from there.
Sword at his side and bow and quiver in his hands he made his way unseen the trees, concealed himself and strung the bow. Nocking an arrow he took the best aim he could with his one good eye and waited for Adroald to draw nearer. A minute stretched slowly passed, as the wagon crept nearer.
The summer breeze must have carried his scent to the draft horse because it suddenly shied, looked around and then narrowed its gaze fearfully towards his hiding place and snorted. Adroald looked up, squinting to see the source of alarm. Unwilling to risk losing his advantage, Banco loosed the arrow even as the merchant turned his attention away. The arrow sped past, grazing his foe’s cheek perhaps, but a wasted shot in all. He nocked and fired the second arrow quickly as he could, it cut through the air where Adroald had been sitting a second before – but the startled merchant was already flinging himself from the wagon with a yelp.
The next arrow ready, he waited until Adroald peeked his head over the wagon side and shot once more, even as the merchant reached for his own bow. The arrow went high, but it clsoer this time. He nocked and aimed once more, waiting for the head to peek over the top. A movement form the corner of his eye caught his attention, and he realised that Adroald had moved towards the back of the wagon, and was reaching in for something. He shfited his aim and shot hastily, the arrow went low, colliding into one of the sacks in the back of the wagon and causing the Adroald to skitter back into safety once more. As soon as the arrow was loosed though, Banco dropped his bow, drew his sword and hurried down the slope towards his waiting enemy. Vengeance would be his, was the only thought in his enraged mind, even as Adroald stepped out from behind the wagon, a long spear held competently in his hands.
Starting Character: Banco son of Causeradi
Banco is created in a similar fashion to Adroald, it is simply that the traits and points have been spent differently. Note, though, that the same number of points have been spent. With both characters in play and, I hope a suitable narrative background to explain why we are about to make them beat seven shades of something from each other, it’s time to go deeper into the game mechanics.
Banco fired four arrows in total and I want first to consider them from his perspective, or at least the perspective of his (imagined) player. For each of the shots we are assuming a separate diceroll (depending on the nature of the group, the Host might be able to group together into one roll or automatically arbitrate the outcome of a few). What matters here, though, is that we have a one-eyed man attempting to shoot a bow at a semi-concealed target, who keeps popping up in different places, and sometimes actively tries to evade the incoming attack.
Looking at Banco’s character sheet you will see that he has one point in the archery skill, he’s trained to the extent of being pretty good, a competent learner. His base roll in this situation then is 1d6. However, being one-eyed makes it harder for him to judge the distance, and that is adding in a -1d6 modifier, so effectively his skill has been cancelled out by the specific relevance of his disability to the situation. For Banco, everything will come down to the difficulty modifier and, as an element of that, whether he has a chance to aim and prepare.
Banco’s first arrow is initially aimed, but loosed a little hastily and at a greater range than he desired, as he becomes apprehensive that he has been rumbled. Conversely, Adroald is sat in the open and has dismissed the uneasiness as a figment of his imagination, or of his horse’s anyway. The Host sums this together and decides that the difficulty for this should make it an Easy shot: +2d6. Adroald has no defence in this situation, he’s effectively a sitting duck. We already know from the narrative above that the arrow missed, that’s because Banco (or rather, his player) rolled a ‘2’ and a ‘3’, which makes ‘5’ in all. No specific flaws, but nevertheless a failure. Taking into account the two characters involved in this situation, in game it would probably have played out something like: Adroald’s player declares intent to scan the surroundings for what disturbed his horse (the Notice roll), So Banco fearing that he has been rumbled decides to launch his attack early. In practice Adroald fails to spot the ambush, and Banco’s too-hasty shot misses. The host decides to turn the flaw that Adroald’s player rolled (the die with a ‘1’), into a minor wound, in which, while it misses its target, the arrow comes just close enough to sting and draw a drop of blood. The injury has no lasting effect on the game mechanics for the character, but it imparts a tangible edge of drama into the story.
The second shot came quickly after the first, so there’s barely any time for preparation. On the other hand, Adroald is still exposed in the open. (An alternate approach the Host could have taken would have been to have let the flaw from the notice roll manifest as several seconds of frozen surprise and indecision after the attack). The Host judges this to be of ‘fair’ difficulty, so therefore the roll is 1d6: and a ‘6’ is rolled. Now, this should be a ‘good’ success, but Adroald was already flinging himself out the way. As such an opposed roll is introduced into the play.
The Host calls for an Athletics roll from Adroald’s player. Adroald has a skill rating of 2, and the Host judges the situation again to be ‘fair’. The player rolls 3d6, and gets a ‘3’ a ‘4’ and a ‘6’. A total of 13, with the ‘6’ raising it from a basic to a good success. In practice, both players have been successful, so the outcomes have to be compared. As both players rolled the same number of ‘6’s (that is one apeice), comparison changes to the highest total number rolled: in this case Banco has a total value of ‘13’ against Adroald’s far lower ‘6’. The Host decides that Banco’s arrows goes perfectly where aimed, but by the time it reached there Adroald’s evasive athleticism had already propelled him over the wagon side to safety.
- greatest number of ‘6’s wins, on a tie
- greatest total rolled wins, on a tie
- least number of ‘1’s rolled wins, on a tie,
- character taking the defensive role wins.
The third arrow gives Adroald the chance to prepare his shot once more: he is aimed and ready. The Host might have given this a difficult rating of ‘Easy’, but taking into account the fact that the merchant is hiding behind the wagon he decides that Banco has to make a called shot, discussed in a previous post. Aiming specifically for Adroald’s head reduces the dicepool by -1d6, and Banco’s player is again rolling 1d6. A ‘4’ this time and the arrow misses, but it is enough to cause Adroald’s player to flinch back. The Host decides that no dodge roll is needed for Adroald here, saving the fraction of time and distraction from the story that making the dice roll would have cost. (If Banco’s roll had been a success, then the Host would have asked for dodge (1d6 in this case) at fair difficulty, so 2d6 in all). In practice, Adroald flinches away and Banco misses.
The fourth arrow aims to a different place, as Adroald has moved. Banco’s preparation is therefore negated, and the difficulty is simply fair: 1d6 again. A ‘5’ and another failure. Adroald’s player has stated that he is going to try and get the spear/lance on his next peek (athletics), and the Host calls it as a tricky difficulty, causing no further change to the dicepool: so 2d6 in total. With a ‘6’ and a ‘2’, Adroald has a good success, he evades the arrow with ease, flinching as it thuds into the back of the wagon this time, even as he snatches up his spear, and prepares to wait out Banco’s remaining arrows.
While Banco still has an arrow remaining, he’s realised that his plan to rely on archery was not so strong. Moreover, his misses are stoking his resentment and rage. The Host calls for a Motivations roll against Fury (Aistan) with a fair difficulty: 2d6 in all. A roll of a ‘3’ and a ‘4’, or ‘7’ in all, makes for a basic success. Remeber, this means that the emotion has been successful, not Banco’s control resistance to it. The rage wells up in Banco’s heart. Flinging aside the bow he draws the sword and rushes down the hill towards the wagon, bursting into an enraged run when the merchant rounds the back of the wagon, spear levelled and ready.
To be continued…