Play-test – The Miller’s Trail

I’m delighted to announce that the first proper play-test of the LangobardRPG was an overall success! The International Medieval Congress at Leeds, on the 3rd to 6th July 2017, provided a perfect opportunity to gather a group of medievalists and gamers and give the rules a whirl. We gathered at about 16:00, following the conference’s final session, in the student Union’s Old Bar, and amidst much merriment and chatter told a story together that spread through the evening until about 22:00. I’ve spent the week since then reflecting on how the game session went (and, you know, settling back into ordinary academic life back here in Vienna), and have mustered together some thoughts.

The group turned out to be a little larger than I had first anticipated. I’ve previously been used to gaming with groups comprising three or four people in addition to myself, but had five blank character sheets on me in case an extra player turned up. A brief twitter exchange beforehand suggested that we might have a few more people, who would be willing to sit as an audience. When all had gathered there were eight people in addition to myself, and after a brief lament that there were only five blank character sheets available, it was wisely pointed out that more could be photocopied. A few minutes later, and with a large stack of blank character sheets to hand, we decided to make characters for all eight victims. I mean participants.

I was, I have to admit a little apprehensive, at running a game for such a large number of people. Especially with the rules only partially written and the worry that the split of attention between running a game for the largest group I had ever hosted, with rules that might not work in practice weighed on me. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a go.

Character creation took about an hour in total, with a few emendations made to the rules and sundry details along the way. As many of the players were later medievalists, we began with a quick overview of the scene and setting, and with assurances that while specific historical details and snippets would be welcome, today’s aim was more testing the mechanics than worrying overly about historical accuracy. For the purpose of the play-test, I explained that I wanted (or needed, perhaps) a small and isolated community, with natural geographical limits that would stop the players spreading out into to large a social world.

 

The Setting

As such, I created a fictional village lying somewhere to the very far north of the Lombard kingdom, in a fictional valley lying on the edges of the Alps. The date for the story was set as ‘early in the April of the year 653’. The locaton, therefore, was surrounded by mountains and thick pine forest on most sides, and moreover was snowed in with the first spring melt just underway. I have no idea if the winter of 652-53 was particularly heavy, but said that if it later turned out it wasn’t then the players should imagine the village being even further into the mountains.

A few historical details began to arise here, that I think helped to cement the isolated village with at least an illusion of connection to the larger Lombard regnum. For instance, King Rothari had died in the September of the previous year, and his son Rodoald had then taken over and, already, died after a mere six-months in March. As the village had been snowed in however, there was no way they would have known of Rodoald’s death, and we decided even that word of Rothari’s death had not reached them either.

The valley was split by a river into two unequally sized parts, with the larger east bank being mostly farmlands, overshadowed by a monastic double house built on a small peak on the valleys edge. Later in the game it was decided that the monastery was dedicated to St Columbanus, and was under the rule of an Abbess (who did not appear directly in the story). The smaller westbank contained the village itself, with emphasise that there were a couple of larger halls belonging to landed freemen, a church, a smithy and numerous other huts, houses and out buildings, as well as a mill somewhat downstream. A wooden bridge near the village joined west and east banks, with a path going from village to monastery, and another path heading north through the mountains towards Alamannia, impassable in winter, of course, and the other heading south past other distant villages towards the main lands of the Lombard regnum proper.

 

Players & Characters

With this in mind, we made the characters somewhat communally, bouncing ideas off each other in turn, starting with the more experienced gamers and letting the others chip in when they felt comfortable. As Ricky and I had previously discussed an idea for his character (the play test was originally scheduled for the Tuesday, but announced late and on the fly it had garnered only the one player). to give a quick role-call of the characters, and their players, to whom I am indebted and thankful for their time, participation and good will, we ended up with:

Ricky Broome portraying a landed freeman and gastald (the local representative of the crown), named Rodulf, the highest ranking secular person in the valley. A fun detail that Ricky had added was that this freeman was both very pious and very cowardly, elements which spontaneously generated sub-plot and progressed the story simultaneously.

James Hill took the role of another landed freeman, Adalwold, to whom I later gave an ‘npc’ wife, Ratruda, who took a pivotal role in the broader plot. This addition was made a little way into the game, when it became apparent that this character had the right mix of pride, athletic warlikeness and personal obliviousness that would foster the neglected resentment that side character needed for when the story was underway.

Rose A. Sawyer created the lowest ranking character socially, an unfree field slave of advanced years, Maura, pious, with a strong grasp of folklore and the usage of herbs to heal, and perhaps harm. Hard of hearing, this character was a delightfully loud-spoken and argumentative addition to the story! We adapted the wounds and permanent injury rules on the fly to represent this, and established an approach that meshed well with the extant mechanism but should also represent some tangential connections in the Lombard laws. A further blog post for this will be required to hammer out the fine details. While under the lordship of Adalwold, but with her mundium (legal responsibility) held by her nephew, Facho.

James Titterton portrayed this Facho, another unfree labourer, this one a lazy woodcutter with light-fingers and hopes to get rich quick. Whether his domineering aunt contributed to his desire to leave the village I could not say, but even before the story began the character was established as one who spent more time in the forests even when he didn’t need to be there. Despite the hungry and prowling wolves.

Sunny Harrison played an unfree goatherd named Bonipergus, who began the game with a permanent injury already, a damaged leg that caused him to limp. While this was a valuable testing of the rules and character creation system, unfortunately it was a detail that slipped my mind when the story began and did not receive quite as much traction as it should have done.

Rachel Gillibrand played a freeborn nun from the monastery, Sister Aurula, young, and having difficulty balancing the constraints of her orders with her personal emotions. Monatic closure was less of an issue, and her part in the story began with her climbing the monastic wall to head into the village and inform her lover there, the blacksmith Leth, that she had fallen pregnant. In the course of character creation, Rachel sketched her wayward nun on the back of the sheet, and has given me permission to reproduce it here for your delight.

Rachels nun sister aurula
Pencil sketch of the player character ‘Sister Aurula’ by Rachel Gillibrand (06/07/2017). Reproduced with kind permission of the artist.

 

Victoria Baker played another nun, Sister Auria, this one half free, and the elder half-sister of Aurula (their shared father clearly had a typically medieval naming penchant!), born out of wedlock. More comfortable with her piety and vows, she too was nevertheless escaping the confines of the monastery, chasing after her errant sister to compel her return.

Victoria Cooper was the last of the starting players, and portrayed the womanising blacksmith Leth (the similarity in the name to the English ‘letch’ was quickly noted), with a character that echoed Gaston of Beauty and the Beast. Under her command was an apprentice smith, Obthera, an NPC with a tendency to be outspokenly wrong, before later re-imagining his past as he claimed to have been correct from the outset.

Cornel-Peter Rodenbusch joined the game late, a passerby in the Old Bar who came into the story early in the second part. He took control of an NPC already in the story, the gossipy priest Hilzo, and companion to the gastald Rodulf. The dynamics of their relationship changed here a little, as a stronger piety and theological bent were introduced, and the relationship between him and the freeman became a bit more strained. But the story prospered for it.

This grand total, as was noted, meant that player characters probably counted for about a quarter to a fifth of the village in total, as I’d previously noted that the population was only around the forty mark. A number of other NPCs appeared in addition to those already named, including a ploughman by the name of Weo, a deacon who was never named, but in my head at least was played by the late and great Christopher Lee, and the Miller Nozimu, who was already dead and floating in the river by the time he was first encountered. As may be noted, most of the male names are taken from the ‘king’s list’ and the list of Rothari’s personal ancestry as given in the prologue to the Edictus Rothari, as the previous blog-post I put together on that proved to be a useful resource.

 

The Story

There were also wolves, again per a previous post, that made for a, I hope, dramatic beginning, and one which nearly resulted in the death of Facho in the stories opening moments. (As an aside, if you ever need dice rolling do not ask James Titterton to roll them for you, even the red ones do not go faster for him!). One of the wolf-pack also got bad dice rolls, impaling itself twice on barely succeeded sword strikes, first when Adalwold all but fluffed a sword swing at the outset, and again later when hunger outweighed fear and pain and drove it back to the village and it rounded on Hilzo. Hilzo, you see, had become separated from the group pursuing the fleeing Facho, who in turn had first robbed the church of it’s more portable wealth, and then got caught by our intrepid nuns, when he tried to lift the silver crucifix from around Sister Aurula’s neck. The laws on pursuing fugitives and the composition due for theft began to surface in my mind, as Facho fled into the woods. In the end, he fell over a ravine and into the somewhat icy river, only to be rescued (and dragged off with the promise of facing justice later), by the smith Leth.

A number of false leads were followed, beginning with the assumption that the miller had committed suicide, then as the morth, the murder was revealed the finger of suspicion jumped between characters, both player and non-player, as first the already guilty of theft Facho was accused, then suspicion fell to Ratruda, then the ploughman Weo, the smith Leth (briefly, and I only found out in discussion afterwards that the other players were again suspecting one of their kith), before finally being settled on Leth’s apprentice Obthora. The grounds were revealed to be, that he had fallen in some imagining of lust-fuelled love/obsession with Ratruda, wife of the freeman Adalwold. Knowing that this neglected lady was already committing adultery with the miller, he had killed out of jealousy, concealing the body as he would never have afforded the composition due for the killing, and not fleeing so that he stay in the vicinity of his desired paramour.

Reflections

In all, then, a wonderful session. And it was brilliant to be able to get most of the story through in the short time we had. Aftermath was a bit lacking, and the focus of the game turned more to action and investigation than the consequent legal procedure. One element that didn’t get the chance to be revealed in the story was Sister Aurala’s pregnancy, although the ‘to be continued’ ending for the story is promising in this light! And there will always be the IMC in 2018 to pick up where we left off, hopefully with more of the mechanisms and details explored, clarified and set down by then. The idea of running a follow up story session as a Lombard court case is appealing to me, and gives me a specific direction for extending the rules (and perhaps some of my research in general) over the coming year.

A number of areas for revision arose throughout the course of the gaming, some simple tweaks, others requiring a bit more work. Likewise, further directions to be pursued were identified. Some of the smaller things included, renaming the ‘character’ section of the character sheet ‘Identity’, in a nod to the current direction of scholarship in that area, and the idea of making an automatic identity generator for the website. I still need to write a fulsome post on this subject, and I hope that by the time it is completed it will help bring character creation a bit more together.

In the process of character creation we reduced the nine points for Motivations to seven, which cut down the feeling that all characters were overly laden in all emotions, and decided to get rid of the option for striking through here. The level 0 trait as it is was minimal enough that it already represented an ‘unlikely to feel this’ status.

Starting Skills were emended to having one at level 2 (master) and a further nine at level 1 (learner). This reduced from an initial state of thirteen level 1s, which was again felt to be too many. However, by the end of the session a further approach was discussed, in which the number of specific skills on the character sheet was reduced. One of the problems was the consideration that the likely skills expected for a free man might have little in common with that expected for a servus (enslaved man) or a free woman, let alone an ancilla (enslaved woman). Some of the specific skills also caused a bit of confusion, for instance the question was raised that with the ‘duelling’ skill covering most edged and pointed weapons, why did their need to be a specific ‘lance’ skill? The answer to this lies in the cultural context of the laws (discussed previously in this post), but as many of the play-testers were ad hoc arrivals, they were not already privy to a lot of the background discussions. The idea essentially being that a reduced, core set of skills should be included on the character-sheet, while a larger number of empty slots be included so that specific skills could be added as required. Pages dedicated to specific roles (such as a gastald or priest), might then outline additional suggested skills that the player might consider choosing from. In a later discussion with Ricky, the possibility of giving unequal amounts of starting skill points by social class was raised, to reflect the privilege and opportunities of the free versus the unfree.

These emendations to setting up the characters’ skills are something that I need to consider in detail. One objection to these, for instance, was the idea that there was such a strict gender and class limitations on, for instance, weaponry. While I do not question that the laws were trying to impose such limits, the situation given in Liutprand No. 141 (734 CE), reminds us how complicated the situation could be, with a tirade against

certain perfidious and evil-minded men, [who] not presuming themselves to enter armed into a village or into the house of another man in a violent manner since they fear the composition which has been set up in an earlier law, gather together as many women as they have both free and bond and set them upon weaker men[…]

(Trans. Fischer-Drew, The Lombard Laws, p. 208)

Likewise, laws for manumission or enslavement for unpaid debts and fines, and so forth, give strong grounds for the skills of one identity to be transferred to another.

But a clearer character sheet may nonetheless be useful. I am toying with the idea of keeping all the skills in one discursive segment in the rule book, with the assumption that the player can take without restriction (beyond maximum number of points available to spend at character creation) whichever are most suited for their character’s background. The main character sheet could then have only a core list, and the identity description pages will include prompts and discussion that guidelines rather than rules.

In all, then, there is much still to be done, but I wozuld like once agian to thank the wonderful group who gathered with me on that fine evening, and gave this still bare-bones set of mechanisms and ideas a chance!

 

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