charlemagne in action


Our regular Pendragon crew could not play on Friday night, so I spruced up some one-page dungeons and ran a session of Charlemagne’s Paladins for Skidoo, whose Pendragon character Sir Hervis is the terrifically accomplished straight man to Sir Carabad the Schlimazel.

Running 1:1 D&D is rough going for the player. Skidoo grabbed a pre-gen, Lady Odelia, a dual-class Thief 5 (ex-Cleric 5) and a bunch of 3rd level Fighter henchmen, and set off for adventure, before realizing that a lone Thief and her gang of henchmen are in for a world of trouble.

Briefly: Charlemagne’s court enchanter, Maugris, had a prophetic dream about the city of Avignon and the future of Christendom, and asked Lady Odelia on behalf of the King to pacify the surrounding lands.  Avignon and the territory between it and the Pyrenees was  known back then as “Septimania,” which sounds like some Labor Day-related car sale event.

But in the late 700’s A.D. Septimania had a lot going on, in terms of D&D settings. About forty years prior, Charles THE HAMMER Martel practically stomped the whole region into the dirt when the local Visigoths, led on by promises of assistance from the Moors, wouldn’t submit to him. So the place is littered with ruins, the local population is nominally Christian but there are still lots of pagan traditions and cults (variants on Saxon deities, who were variants on Norse gods), there are barbarian and Moorish raiders from the Pyrenees, and towns like Marseille get a fair amount of trade.  Narbonne is in the process of becoming a center of learning and religious toleration, with lots of strange folk mingling. To the southwest, the dangerous Moors; to the southeast, the treacherous Lombards.

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex (French people, point out what I got wrong!)

Anyhow, Odelia wasn’t too keen on spreading the King’s influence, but did want to help the locals simply for the sake of doing good deeds, so she traveled down to Avignon by riverboat. Along the way she hoodwinked some Ogres who had set up a toll, and negotiated the release of one of her men from mischievous Nixies. During the journey she became increasingly fixated on finding the bandit stronghold of Scarlet Jacques, whose depredations had alarmed the locals.

(Of the one-pagers I had brought with me, this stronghold was the one I had not stocked—and, it turns out, had not brought the map after all. Naturally it was the plot hook the player wanted to pursue…)

Anyway, so Odelia set off into the foothills of the Alps, and ran into five Hill Giants who she had to let pass by.  She interrogated a desperate merchant who had escaped from Jacques’ alpine fortress: there are at least 150 bandits, a pagan priest, and a magician of terrible power: far more than a Thief and six knights could handle. Regrettably descending back into civilization, we had to stop when a flock of Wyverns carried off half of Odelia’s henchmen and another poised on a rock above her, daring her to make the first move…

what worked

This felt exactly like any D&D game ever played. Some overland hex exploration leading to encounters solved through lateral thinking (she was a Thief after all), and just GM’ing what the dice told me would happen. My only deviations from the 2e rules were using the B/X wildness encounter charts, because I didn’t have the Monstrous Compendia on my iPad.

what didn’t work

Odelia in theory had access to Cleric spells, but the casting time problem–everything in Charlemagne’s Paladins takes ten times longer to cast–meant that it was pretty hard to plan ahead given the extremely random nature of overland travel in the game. I suspect that this is something that could be overcome with some thought and more exposure to the spell list.

The other thing that didn’t work was having a solo adventurer engage in overland travel, even with a retinue of meat shields. A lot of really horrible monsters live in the mountains, and it was a minor miracle that Odelia survived for over a week of game time.

charlemagne: a cool guy

All the stuff that King Arthur gets credit for, like unifying a diverse kingdom and establishing order after a long period of chaos, conquering Europe, trying to instill a moral code among the warrior class, and encouraging culture and learning–Charlemagne actually did that stuff, though of course this was the work of generations beginning with his grandfather Charles THE HAMMER Martel and continued by his father Pepin the Short. From (very biased) accounts Charlemagne seems like an extremely talented and interesting person.

charlemagne: also, turned into a dick for propaganda purposes

As we discussed prior to play, so much of our society’s imaginative life is focused on the idea of “good” violence. It’s a very problematic concept, and I’m sure it’s been part of human nature since the dawn of time, but Charlemagne did “good violence” on a scale never before seen in Europe, particularly against Muslims.

Charlemagne’s own attitudes toward Muslims appear to be complex and historically contingent: the disaster at Roncevalles started because he was willing to make an alliance with one group of Muslims against another faction.

But a few centuries later, during the Crusades, people looked to Charlemagne’s battles against the Moors as a kind of propaganda tool to inspire everyone to go to the Holy Land and slaughter people. The chansons de geste, which are at the heart of the Matter of France, were composed during this time.  For the next thousand years, whether fighting crusades, colonizing the New World and Africa, holding various ideological revolutions, World Wars, Cold Wars, and now Terror Wars, world history has been shaped by Western Civilization’s seemingly endless appetite for “good violence.”  And for Europe, the big proof-of-concept was Charlemagne, at least as perceived in propaganda.  (And again, this is probably not unique to the West, but they ended up in a position to indulge that appetite fairly often.)

Basically, in 2013 your attitude about legendary Charlemagne killing hordes of legendary Evil Muslims is going to be shaped by our own experiences of “good violence” in our modern crusade.  I haven’t resolved how I feel about using these themes in the game.

12 Responses to “charlemagne in action”

  1. 1 Steven Warble
    February 27, 2013 at 6:00 pm

    My opinion of Charlemagne is affected more by his treatment (read slaughter) of the Saxon peoples, who at the time were mostly pagan and mostly in the way of his empire building. But what’s a millennium old historical slaughter between neighbors these days?

  2. February 27, 2013 at 6:29 pm

    Well, I think the issue isn’t the historical facts, so much as when, where, and who you’re playing with. But as a matter of historical fact, I agree that it seems that Charlemagne was far more brutal toward the Saxons than he ever was to the Moors.

    If we can imagine some form of D&D that was invented in the late 1930’s, I would have a whole different set of second-thoughts about glamorizing a semi-literate Germanic Casear (root of “Kaiser”) hellbent on conquering Europe and exterminating religious minorities in the name of civilization.

    My mom was a French history buff, and had a big crush on Napoleon. Growing up, I heard a lot about how great he was. It wasn’t until I started reading Dostoyevsky that it hit me, “Hey, Russians have a pretty good reason to dislike this guy.”

    I’m not sure it makes sense for future generations to approve or disapprove of historical figures. But I do think it’s important to reflect on the impact they’ve had on the present, and if there was injustice done, to call it out.

  3. February 27, 2013 at 7:57 pm

    maybe the sourcebooks have less lethal encounters? Are creatures of legend slightly less likely to be met in that campaign world?

  4. February 28, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Some of the sourcebooks approach the issue differently. HR1 The Vikings retains a lot of supernatural beings, including dragons; HR3 The Celts does as well.

    But HR2 is pretty stingy with the monsters. It does have the great line, “There is only one elephant in Europe, named Abu Abbas, a gift to Charlemagne from the Caliph in Baghdad. Since there is only one, it is inevitable that the PC’s will encounter it. Charlemagne will want it returned unharmed, of course.”

  5. March 2, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    I’d like to suggest that just about everything that makes for an exciting game or even a good movie is actually horrible in real life, and something people would go out of their way to avoid. Even Shakespeare’s comedies are built on near-tragic misunderstandings, after all, and his tragedies involve one or more brutal murders. I’d hate to see the Crusades declared unfit as a backdrop for movies, literature, and gaming, for example, even if the Crusades directly led to centuries of horrific violence, because narrative demands conflict.

    Likewise Charlemagne. Our history may not be what we wish that it could have been; we do have an obligation to study and understand the truth within the historical myth-making. At the same time, games fire the imagination and a student’s (in the sense that we are all students) interest in that history. If presented with pathos, games can get us to empathize (though not sympathize) with both the victim and the perpetrator. The latter may be a strange thing to want, but it is important to understand what motivated the actions that we can condemn at this remove.

  6. March 2, 2013 at 6:49 pm

    Harbinger, I agree with all of that.

    12-18 months ago I was on a big Jack Kirby kick. Kirby’s work displays a preoccupation with violence as a form of psychological release, but especially after about 1970 or so, he becomes increasingly preoccupied with how a life of violence scars even the victor forever.

    I think what I’m leaning on is depicting the Visigoths and the Moors as being pretty different from the Franks culturally & religiously, and perhaps exaggerating the political differences to sow conflict, but to give these groups recognizable motivations. The Visigoths in particular have a strong reason to resist Charlemagne’s expansion into what we now know as Languedoc, as Charlemagne’s father Pepin the Short pretty much scorched the earth 20-30 years prior.

    The Moors apparently had their own share of bandits/privateer types, who were mainly interested in loot and harassing the Franks was a socially permissible outlet. Meanwhile their government’s political position would recognize the danger of a unified empire next door, especially after Charlemagne’s adventure in the Iberian peninsula earlier in the year.

  7. 7 Zak S
    March 11, 2013 at 2:21 am

    “I haven’t resolved how I feel about using these themes in the game.”
    Well DECIDE!
    Honestly: How old are you, James?
    You should, this many years past the age of 16 be able to assess whether using an idea in a game is doing any damage or, at the very least, be able to figure out what you would need to go find out in order to make that determination.
    Holding onto hipster indeterminacy may get you cred from people eager to see you “taking the issue seriously” but it is actually pretty much the opposite of taking it seriously.

  8. March 16, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Zak, I am going to engage with your comment in good faith, but just as a set of ground rules, don’t come in my house and make personal attacks on me, my co-bloggers, or commenters. There are other ways to say, “Yo, I think you are making too much of this.”

    So here’s where I am coming from in real life. I have a lot of Muslim friends. In the past six years I have represented four accused terrorists imprisoned and tortured at Guantanamo Bay, and I am damn sure that they wouldn’t be in the shithole situation they’re in if they weren’t Muslims. I have done a lot of pro bono work for Muslims who were discriminated against at work. I’ve been involved in efforts to oppose the NYPD’s scattershot “counter-terrorism” policies which have led them time and time again to spy on entire communities as a matter of policy (rather than from the outgrowth of a specific case). Couple years back I helped draft some briefs regarding plans for the Ground Zero Mosque, which was a nine-days-nonsense on cable news.

    If you look around to when the West really starts getting ticked off about Muslims, to the point of depicting them as evil bloodthirsty heretics who can be killed and mistreated in the name of God, it really flourishes in the Twelfth Century, shortly after the First Crusade. And the frequent imagery invoked there goes back to Charlemagne and Roland and Roncevalles.

    So what you’ve got is source fiction which is, to some degree, war propaganda or a justification for bigotry, as the specific inspiration for this sourcebook. The specific bigotry involved is, unfortunately, still very much alive eight hundred years later, and occupies a small but appreciable part of my working day. That’s a problem for me, not because I think by my gaming habits I am making the world safe for Muslims, but because I personally know some of this stuff is bigoted in a way that matters in my own life.

    The solution to this is to deconstruct the Matter of France, particularly the campaigns along the Spanish March. That isn’t something I can do in a weekend. I wanna read up more on the source material to pick apart useful characters. I wanna learn more about the history involved, to see if there are some interesting NPC’s. Ultimately the goal would be to present the Moors as a racially, culturally, and religiously distinct society, that for a variety of understandable but likely irreconcilable reasons is on a direct collision course with Charlemagne and his bunch. In other words, it’s a real war fought by real people for real reasons, one of which is religious differences.

    In other words, this isn’t something I can do in a weekend.

    And then, the issue is to do this while working a demanding job, doing a couple projects for charity, and looking after three (hopefully temporarily) disabled family members. All for a campaign I don’t have an player base for, in an RPG that is in my second-tier of games I want to run. So it’s not what you call a burning priority.

    But I certainly appreciate you taking the opportunity to make a thoughtful, sincere, constructive personal attack to show off your hobbyhorse.

  9. 9 Zak S
    March 21, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    That wasn’t an attack, James.
    It was an exasperated question and a request.
    And it wasn’t to show off a hobbyhorse:
    _Nothing_ in your answer explains why you think the presence of any of these ideas _in a game_ does things. Takes action in the world. Why it is a cause and not an effect.
    And that’s the content of that question you’re not answering.
    And get offended that I asked.
    And saying you don’t know how to answer.
    And I’m wondering why you don’t feel a need to answer.

  10. March 21, 2013 at 10:04 pm

    Zak, as I explained, your premise is fucked. (“That’s a problem for me, not because I think by my gaming habits I am making the world safe for Muslims, but because I personally know some of this stuff is bigoted in a way that matters in my own life.”)

    My reluctance to run the setting portrayed in several of the medieval French romances is not because running a game in which Muslims are cartoon villains to be slaughtered like flies will make anything happen in the world. It’s because I, as a person, would feel like shit if I ran that particular game. Ain’t nothing consequentialist about it.

    As I mentioned, there’s at least one way to resolve my personal issues here, but it would take some time and it’s not high on my list of priorities.

    I’m not offended that you asked, by the way. I’m offended by how you buried your question amid the “how old are you, James” and the, “You should, this many years past the age of 16 be able to assess whether using an idea in a game is doing any damage” and the “Holding onto hipster indeterminacy may get you cred from people eager to see you ‘taking the issue seriously.'” That isn’t the way sincere people ask questions, and I choose to believe you know that.

  11. 11 Zak S
    March 22, 2013 at 8:20 am

    “My reluctance to run the setting portrayed in several of the medieval French romances is not because running a game in which Muslims are cartoon villains to be slaughtered like flies will make anything happen in the world. It’s because I, as a person, would feel like shit if I ran that particular game. Ain’t nothing consequentialist about it.”
    That’s the answer to the question

  12. September 24, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    This is my first time visit at here and i am really
    pleassant to read everthing at alone place.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2013

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