In Prince Valiant: TSG you play knights of derring do “in the time of King Arthur.” My wife, Deanna, plays Lady Elyse Dulane, “permanently” in disguise as her murdered twin brother, Envil. My son, Xander, plays Sir Gareth Jewelwing, a knight virtuous and bold. In her guise as Envil, Elyse is Gareth’s squire. Gareth knows Elyse’s secret, and has pledged to help her.
Since we’re just starting out you can get all background you need by checking out our session zero: Ye Tangled Web.
Stumbling out of the Gate
This session started all wrong! So, so wrong.
Up to now Xander has always been really motivated to get into whatever comes to the table, but not on this day. I’m still not sure why. Character creation is not 100% his bag, but he got into our session zero talk and added a lot of fun and playable things.
We’d been building up to the game all week. There was a hike where we talked about his character’s horse, Arbez, and he spooled out a whole origin story for him. To top it all off, he’s actually a fan of the Prince Valiant stories. We’ve got 6 volumes of the reprints to prove it.
When it came time to actually play, he started doing his foot-dragging behaviors. Suddenly everything else in the world was more fascinating. Eventually he told me it would be “boring,” and that in our Mech Hack game there was a battle every time, and… and… and…
He’s 7, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so I get it. And let’s face it, players just do this sometimes. Adults have all sorts of ways to sugarcoat it, so in a way it’s just better to have the authentic emotions out in the open.
So, Dear Reader, I’ll admit it. I stooped to the oldest trick in the parenting playbook. After letting my frustration get the better of me for a minute, I played it cool. “Hey, that’s okay, I’ll just play solo with Mommy.” My wife Deanna was like, “Heck yeah.” She was eager to get her character to the table, so she didn’t even have to pretend! Very quickly Xander went from some side play with his LEGO to sitting at the table and leaning right in. The psychic weather of a little kid changes so quickly.
In tried and true fashion, I decided to start our heroes off with a trip to the local Tournament. I told them up front that there would be a joust, an archery shoot, and a melee. I wanted them to: get to know the Valiant rules in a low-stakes environment, see some NPCs in action, and give them an opportunity to win some Fame. In Prince Valiant: TSG, Fame is how you advance. For every 1000 Fame, you get to move a skill up one rank or buy a new one. My favorite wrinkle is that you can’t get Fame for something no one witnessed. Make beautiful, virtuous sacrifices all you want, but if no one sees it, it never happened. Earn enough Fame, and you become an important person in the world of the game.
A GMing technique I’ve developed over the years is to ask how characters how they’re feeling. (We “see” their actions in the game, but not always what motivates them.) So, as they were riding toward toward Castle Dulane, the seat of their most hated enemies, I asked them, “So how are you feeling?” Gareth was “confident,” but Elyse had wonderfully conflicted emotions. “The closer we get to the castle, the less sure of myself I am. I’ve always wanted this life, even before Envil died, but now I don’t know if I can pull it off…”
As they made their way inside and stabled their horses, they saw Gorgas the Bastard smiling and giving money to a child with a basket full of apples. As the result of a failed Presence contest, Elyse could tell something was up, but not precisely what. Gorgas seemed overjoyed to see his rivals.
The Bastard tried to trash talk them, but Elyse ended up turning the tables by using her rapier wit. (She had the superior skill pool, and ended up burying Gorgas after a couple of rounds.) He had to slink away with the crowd tittering behind his back.
The Bastard of Dulane won the next round, though. Our heroes returned to the stable only to discover that Gareth’s lean and lively horse, Arbez, had gorged himself on an all too familiar basket of apples. (Arbez is a well known glutton.) Thinking quickly, Elyse insisted that Gareth ride her mount, Nedonia. Ned is a mean-ass destrier, originally given to Envil to compensate for his small stature.
So, sighing in disappointment with Arbez, Gareth took Ned’s reins, and headed to the tiltyard.
Joust a Plaisance (Joust for Fun)
Gareth easily bested his first opponent, a young squire. Things didn’t get interesting until the second round when Gorgas rode to the bar. Horrified to see Gareth not on Arbez, but on a nasty looking destrier, Gorgas asked his squire (twice) if there was something wrong with his own mount. The squire didn’t get what he was implying, so Gorgas was forced to ride. On the second pass, Gareth unseated him to the oohs and aahs of a delighted crowd.
Elyse had little time to enjoy Gareth’s success. Looking across the lists, she noticed a knight, clad in black, staring at her.
The next bout was for the championship. Gareth was up against Sir Dedrick, a beloved local knight. I made Dedrick up on the spot with a skill pool to match Gareth’s. In the first pass, Gareth scored a ton of successes. We talked about it, and agreed that Gareth’s lance had splintered and gone under Dedrick’s armor. Bleeding and with no practical path to victory, Dedrick refused to retire; he wanted this up-and-comer to savor a real victory. When Dedrick’s skill pool was finally depleted, we interpreted that to mean he finally did retire. By then everyone at the table was so into Dedrick’s chivalry that no one wanted to see him unhorsed. The grandstand crowd was aware of all this nuance, and went crazy when Dedrick lifted Gareth’s arm in victory. (This is one of the unfailingly delightful things about gaming… a character went from not even existing to beloved NPC in the span of 5 minutes.)
At this point Xander was hooked. In Prince Valiant you “toss” coins to determine the outcome of tests. In opposed tests you continue until one side has depleted their pool of coins. My boy was living and dying with each throw. I’m very open about not fudging the odds when we play, and so he felt the thrill of a legitimate win. Honestly, it couldn’t have gone any better.
At the Butts
On the way to competing in the archery tourney a young Lady grabbed Elyse by the wrist and dragged her under the grandstand. Clearly she’d been taken in by Elyse’s Envil disguise! She breathlessly told “him” how lonely she’d been, and asked why “he” hadn’t written her. (My wife had not seen this coming, but loved it; she leaned right into the awkward.) Elyse mumbled her way through the conversation, desperately trying to figure out who in the hell this person was. At an apropos moment, she looked through the open end of the grandstands only to see a stable boy trying to walk off Arbez’s apple hangover; the horse pooped right on cue. The conversation ended with the mysterious Lady begging Elyse/Envil to write to her.
The Lady had given Elyse a favor to wear for the rest of the day… a peach-colored scarf. Elyse had some fun “will she or won’t she” inner turmoil over what to do. She felt totally awkward putting the thing on, but such favors were important to the knights of old; it gave her a +1 in the competition for the rest of the day.
With no downside for competing, and a small Fame reward for giving it a try, I was able to get Gareth and Elyse to the archery butts. They both made a modest showing. As she was shooting, Elyse was startled to see the Black Knight again.
As the late afternoon shadows lengthened, it was finally time for the main event, the melee! I wanted to try out the Prince Valiant Battle rules with the safety features very much on. Battle in Valiant is its own mini-game. You “toss” Battle with both of your stats, first with Brawn, then with Presence. In the real deal you need to make both these rolls to “survive.” The GM has all the interpretive leeway they want in a Battle, but with rules as written, it’s brutal.
Deanna weighed whether or not to have Elyse compete. Her combination of Brawn + Battle isn’t much. Still, a squire is expected to have his knight’s back… I told her that she could skip the competition, but that it might undermine her disguise. After careful consideration, Elyse bravely geared up for combat, knowing she’d probably end up in the mud. Gareth, more optimized for Battle, stood a better chance of succeeding.
It didn’t go well for either of our heroes, but things got especially interesting for Elyse. Relieved at first that the Black Knight wasn’t on the field, her heart sank as she saw his looming form appear in the rear of the enemy ranks.
Elyse didn’t make either roll. So, in a real battle, death. This gave me carte blanche to do something fun. In the midst of the chaos, the Black Knight appears behind her like the grim reaper, and lifts her off the ground. He whispers into her ear, “You’re a stronger swimmer than I thought, Envil; I shan’t make the same mistake twice.” And then hurls her down. [This was a neat moment, because up to now, Elyse hadn’t known exactly what had happened to Envil!] Elyse quickly found herself on the bottom of a pile of other eliminated combatants… and the Black Knight disappeared into the dust.
Gareth made his Brawn-based roll, but not his Presence-based one. In an actual Battle, I might have had him flee the field in terror, but for a melee, it was just a simple elimination. In retrospect, I should have given our heroes some pluses for their armor, but if I’ve learned anything, it’s that GMing is iterative! I’ll just do better next time.
We ended the session here, and everyone seemed quite satisfied. Xander has been asking me when we’re going to play again… and that’s always the best sign!
Given how outrageously popular these tourneys were even as early as the Dark Ages, it was completely appropriate to give generous Fame awards to Gareth and Elyse for competing. Gareth scored big in the Jousting tourney, and got bonuses for showing up in the other events. Elyse scored points for competing, and for besting Gorgas in a contest of wits.
Each Valiant strip ends with a breathless Next Week in the bottom righthand corner. I thought I’d continue that tradition! Xander sweetly mentioned at the end of the session that Gareth and Elyse should look for Envil’s body. I had considered bringing this up myself, but thought it was too dark. I asked him if he was sure and he said, “yeah!” I have an idea how to do this without letting it get grim. So that’ll obviously be a big thing for next session.
I’ve gotten a surprisingly strong response to the campaign, so I hope you’ll stick around for more…
§ § §
Explore Prince Valiant in the deluxe reprints by Fantagraphics.
All Prince Valiant images by Hal Foster
Destrier image: https://weaponsandwarfare.com/