[Brave New Worlds] The Once And Future King
I’m beginning to realise that I’ve made a terrible mistake.
As much as I like the idea of historical, very low-fantasy D&D (or B&B in my case) as an idea, it’s not really the representative of the D&D practice that it needs to be.
No, of course I’m not killing and re-starting the campaign. What do you take me for? I’m going to fantasy-and-mythology this thing up, following certain principles laid out previously and making the effort, as suggested by learned scholars of the form, to employ a canon with which I can boast some familiarity as the bedrock of a personal vision.
Not that I’m actually going for Malory’s Arthur, ho no. I want to set my sights a bit earlier than that; an Arthur who could conceivably pull his ‘once and future king’ shtick in Elizabeth’s England would I feel be more plausible if rooted some thousand years prior to his return. That sites him firmly in the sixth century from whence his legend (probably) derives, before Geoffrey of Monmouth got his mitts on it and started conflating all over the shop, setting the old standards with which we’re (hopefully) all familiar. That said, there are elements of Monmouth and of Malory in there where I’ve felt they can be safely reinterpreted and add a sense of grand narrative and mythic resonance to a rather loose collection of Arthuriana.
In accordance with the accepted principles of setting revelation (short version: don’t tell people about your setting, show people the mechanical tools that are used to explore it and trust ‘em to get the rest, especially if you’re basing yourself on existing sources), I want to see how much of my workings-out I can get across without sinking to scads of descriptive text. Mechanically, I’m thinking about something generically D&Dish, having the general shape of OD&D about it since that’s the last thing I read.
However, I have done the workings-out, there is a version of the Arthuriad that I’ve engineered to justify all this, and those of you who are interested in that process of thinking-out-loud will find it tucked away at the end of the post.
ARTHUR, overlord of Wales, Cornwall and the North (L). Undead Half-Elf Fighter (10). STR 15, DEX 11, CON 13, INT 11, WIS 8, CHA 16. Excalibur is a longsword which can harm fiendish or otherworldly beings. Excalibur’s scabbard makes the bearer immune to physical damage while carried.
MORDRED (R). Shown for reference; dead for a thousand years. Elf (Fighter 4) if resurrected somehow, though.
MERLIN. Magic-User (11). AC2, HD 8. INT 16, WIS 17, CHA 9. Unable to leave the confines of his tree-prison unless Nimue is persuaded to release him or killed. Fiendish heritage means he can be turned, rebuked and otherwise cleric’d at as if undead.
NIMUE. Elf (Magic-User 4). STR 7, DEX 10, CON 8, INT 14, WIS 8, CHA 14. Predictably powerful Charm Person spell, as Dryad.
MORGAUSE, MORGANA and ELAINE (Elf Magic User – 6, 8 and 4 respectively). MORGAUSE has the highest CHA, MORGANA INT and ELAINE WIS. Their magic is of a subtle and beguiling kind, chiefly concerned with baffling the mind and foretelling the future. That said, Morgana is not averse to taking a more direct hand in events through summonations and omens, where necessary.
So far, so mythical. Now to bring it into the 1590s.
From the frozen waters
The king will rise again
With two suns in the sky
See the gleaming spires of the citadel
The king and queen will dwell
In our hearts…
1485 – A Welshman takes the throne of England. The Warlock of Oxford, aged three, begins his persecution of the Drake family, which will last for three generations.
1594 – the Irish (customarily ahead of the game in matters related to elves and elvendom) become restless. The Old English are driven back to Ulster, but the Irish cannot take the fortified towns. (Historically speaking, the Earl of Essex would land in Ulster at the head of seventeen thousand men in 1599. In this fantasy they will be required elsewhere.)
1599 – Septimus Drake encounters three travellers on the road to Oxford, where he is putting the Warlock to trial at last. At the trial the Warlock declares that a thousand years of exile are ended and the King is to rise again. Iron gates under Alderley Edge swing open. The Long Man hauls open his door. Mists enshroud the western coast. The Once and Future King rides out.
(Following recommendations from a player, I’ve come to think of the narrative as being akin to a Doctor Who serial in its structure. So far we’ve had Part One, bumbling around the world encountering its basic elements and waiting for the plot to start, which it does. You might also call it the conventional three-act story if you were more literary in your inclinations, but I definitely started with the brief that “we all like Who so do something like that.”)
Part 2 – The Civil War comes forty years early, and is fought with high magic. The undead ‘knights’ lead a rabble of Welsh, Cornish and Cumbrian soldiery against Elizabeth’s armies amassed to the South and East.
Part 3 – The Act of Union unifies England and Lyonesse (symbolically represented by the brief marriage of Arthur to the dying Elizabeth – extended reign through magic?) with James’ angry demonological/Protestant sympathies confined to the northern reaches. England gradually becomes a client state of Lyonesse, a bulwark against the emergent occult powers of Europe and, ultimately, the influx from Cappadocia (of which more later).
Any conflict between Elizabeth’s England and Morgana’s Lyonesse is likely to be brutal and one-sided unless powerful Clerics and Paladins begin to emerge among the English (cf. Hordes of the Things, in which Magicians are effectively long-ranged espionage and artillery while Clerics and Paladins disrupt them – if the game reaches the stage where large battles and the outcome thereof are of interest to the players I see no harm in teaching the rudiments of HoTT to resolve the same, especially since one or two players have an interest in earning a sort of wargamer’s merit badge as it is). Therefore:
JOHN WHITGIFT, Archbishop of Canterbury (Cleric – level will depend on whether we take the Alexandrian approach to what characters can do, suggesting 5 tops, or the older D&D approach in which case he’s 10 because he has a temple).
A High Churchman, a Calvinist, inclined to overstep his authority in suppressing heretical elements and fond of a grand entrance.
ROBERT DEVEREUX, Earl of Essex (Paladin – level 3). STR 12, DEX 9, CON 14, INT 11, WIS 13, CHA 17.
Among Elizabeth’s favourites, and her most ambitious commanders; regularly disobeys his mistress in hounding defeated enemies. Possessed of a lively mind, a quick blade, and a glorious temperament, though not quite Cecil’s match for savvy.
ROBERT CECIL, Secretary of State. (No PC class level?)
In constant dispute with Essex, his chief rival at court; the Earl’s flamboyance and growing disregard for his Queen (as opposed to his nation) aggravate the Secretary, who wants things to proceed in a quiet and orderly fashion as they are ordered to.
In the event of war Whitgift’s predeterminist slant and theological elitism will favour the establishment of the Knights Palatine – it is necessary that this war be fought or the Lord would not have bade them fight it, and Calvinism lends one to a belief that some are more saved than others. Essex, as an exceptional figure committed to England’s best interests as he sees them, is a hothead but a loyal one – a flamboyant and overeager Paladin but a Paladin nonetheless. In mechanical terms he barely qualifies for the class as (though Whitgift would have my head for saying this) he’s damage control rather than appointed from birth.
A few more thoughts. Alignment in this game is likely to be as much political as spiritual or mechanical. The old-D&D division of Lawful and Chaotic will be useful in distinguishing between the Otherworlders (elves, undead, persons of fiendish ancestry et hoc genus omne) and the, ahm, Worlders for mechanical purposes, particularly if Clerics are explicitly aligned with Worldliness and thus have inherent disruptive powers over the Otherworldly. I suspect I’ll keep the two-word descriptor of alignment but make one word a mechanical/supernal function (i.e. Worldly or Otherworldly) and one word a political expression (Lyonesse, English, Cappadocian, Drow, Prussian).
I also intend to fold in a Loyalty score a la OD&D to indicate the character’s commitment to their political allegiances (it helps to have a metric and mechanic for these things, both for tracking purposes and to reinforce the role of having character statistics for the players). It follows a similar breakdown to stats – 9-12 Loyalty is average, with brackets for negative and positive Morale modifiers for higher and lower loyalties, 3 or less indicating ‘will desert at first opportunity’ and 19 or above indicating cast-iron devotion of the sort only displayed by the ensorcelled or the undead.
Under this system Merlin (for example) might have an alignment expressed as Otherworldly English 7. If you’re interested in why Merlin might have such an alignment, I’m afraid you’ll have to endure a failed genre author revising and retelling a myth which has been better done by better writers beforehand. If you hate that sort of thing, skip straight to the comments section and tell me I don’t understand OD&D or something.
Green identifies three pre-Galfridian iterations of Arthur which, if they existed, would occur at around the right time-frame for the ‘sleep of a thousand years’ to result in his awakening in 1599. There’s the monster-hunting protector of Britain who fights cat-monsters, divine boars, dragons, dogheaded monstrosities, giants and witches; the leader of a band of superhuman heroes who live off in the wilds somewhere; and there’s the Welsh king whose connection to the otherworld of Annwyn is close but conflicted.
On the one hand, he has a stronghold and a wife there; on the other, he raids Otherworldly fortresses, freeing prisoners and taking treasure. Coe and Williams’ translations from Welsh tales indicate his wife Gwenhwyfar to have been one such prisoner. Their research also indicates that the Uther Pendragon legend regarding Arthur’s actual birth, and a version of Merlin as prophet and wild-man (Myrddin Wilt, or Merlin Sylvestri in the Latin) predate Monmouth.
Much of this has the reek of the OD&D Fighter progression about it – an adventuring hero who gradually accumulates renown and henchmen and eventually constructs a stronghold and establishes a domain. Arthur has done it on a grander scale – why? Because he has been pushed or pulled from various sides by various magical figures with dreams of empire or designs on freedom (that old ‘social forces’ bugaboo rises like a crimson fortress from the waves again).
So that’s what I want to pull together to form ‘my’ Arthuriad. I also want to plug it in to some of my ideas about elves and half-elves, via the concept of Lyonesse. I’ll outline these in more detail later; suffice to say that I see elven society, whether ‘high’ or ‘drow’ elven, as matriarchal and manipulative, innately magical and prone to intermarrying with mortal dynasties that they wish to control, producing royal/noble lines of half-elves as a symbol of unity and control. Their societies are headed by matron mothers – magic-users of extraordinary power and insight who are quite happy to indulge in a spot of ‘dynastic manipulation’ (read ‘incest’) to keep the lineage ticking along.
Anyway. Arthur. The Once and Future King. A mortal warlord, fathered thanks to Merlin’s trickery on the elf Ygrane, wife to and mistress of the King of Cornwall. Raised among the men of Albion (as the elves of Lyonesse call the British Isles), he proved peerless and perilous in battle. With Merlin’s guidance he overthrew the client kings allied with Lyonesse, raided several of the elven fortresses, and rescued Gwenhwyfar (a mortal woman, who was being held as a measure on her kingly father’s loyalty to Lyonesse). In later life he established a great kingdom of Albion, reaching out to foreign shores and secure against invasion for all his days. Yet Arthur’s kingdom was also free of elven dominion, and that would simply never do.
Morgause and her four sons came to Arthur’s court on an errand of contrition, and she seduced him. She bore a son more elf than human, whose succession to Arthur’s throne would bring Albion to heel. To further twist the knife, Gwenhwyfar was herself led astray by a changeling knight raised in Lyonesse, the sons of Morgause led a feud against that knight that broke up Arthur’s fellowship, and Merlin himself was sealed away in a tumulus by his elven ‘apprentice’ and lover Nimue, robbing Arthur of magical support. This threefold scheme rendered Arthur more and more dependent on Mordred, whose eventual betrayal shattered the realm of Albion for good, even though it proved unsuccessful.
At Camlann, his son’s blood on his hands, the dying and grief-striken Arthur repented of ever taking up arms against his sisters. He forsook the sword to which Merlin had led him, and being conveyed off to Avalon, the capital of Lyonesse, where he would rest for a thousand years. In his absence came the conquest by the Angles, the Jutes, and the Saxons; England was established, and Arthur forgotten, save for an empty grave at Glastonbury and some wild, wooly legends of the Once and Future King, chiefly nurtured by Welsh and Cornish rebels, and some of the surlier northern tribes.
Many of these legends were taken up and retold as something more courtly and Christian by successive generations of scholars, knights and rulers, seeking to claim this hero as one of their own all along. You know how it is.
There are a few plot threads dangling from what was originally going to be a very different kind of game, but I can pick those up later; there’s more to the world than just Albion or England after all (for one thing I have the major powers of Prussia, Cappadocia and the Papacy to outline at some point), and the reasons why an obscure English noblewoman might travel in the company of a young man with jet-black eyes, while hunted by a fat and incompetent Italian assassin, can be explored later if the characters come down on the side of Elizabeth or take no interest in affairs Arthurian when those are mooted. Or the players might just forget about that when I wave some mythology in their faces. Who knows?