Saturday, 16 November 2019

Gone to Ground: The Tale of a Huntsman

In my Mythago Wood review, I referenced thrillers like like Rogue Male or The 39 Steps or The Day of the Jackal - calling them low-tech, lone man tales. Low-tech and Lone Man might not always be strictly true, of course. The Jackal is able to contrive a concealed sniper rifle and fake passports; Richard Hannay finds allies here and there (Greenmantle, for instance, contains notable Lone Man segments centred on Hannay or Peter Pienaar, even if the protagonist is acting as part of a team). The term is, therefore, relative. These adventure stories have neither the cast of thousands of a Tom Clancy techno-thriller nor the military machinery thereof. Likewise, they do not have the Lone Man with a variety of gadgets that might mark out comic book superheroes like Batman, or the cinematic James Bond (pastiches of Bond often exaggerate this element; Wikipedia descriptions of Bond-imitators and other pulps are fascinating things).
To step away from what this is not, we might say that low-tech, lone man tales are often written in the first person, take place as much in the countryside as the city, have a relatively small amount of travel and discuss circumstances where human opponents will always be a threat, nameless henchmen or otherwise, and where weather and fatigue can be as deadly and fearful as the guards. This sub-genre or style is more often found in books than on the screen (the movie of The Day of the Jackal is an exception, but this is a difficult mood to capture on film).
The protagonist is as likely to rely upon survival gear as weapons (guns may be hard to come by; even when they find weapons they are likely to be a) improvised or b) non-miltary; hunting rifles not Tommy Guns), and is more likely an amateur than a professional. Even in The Day of the Jackal, when the titular Jackal is a professional assassin, he does not carry a gun for protection or as a problem solver; the things he relies most on are is disguises (including paperwork) and cars, which we may call 'survival gear' - neither are an immediate tactical asset.
I think all this makes a pretty good fit for elements of the OSR (or preferred splinter faction) on the tabletop, especially at low levels. Now, the party of adventurers is sufficiently well established and rather prevents the Lone Man angle. But the paucity of resources, the constant peril and the narrow focus has much to offer.
Therefore, I set my mind to work on a way of capturing this for a first level party. I'd tried it before for a group, but diverted from my starting point into packs of Goblin cannon fodder. What if it was just one man?

GONE TO GROUND: An Adventure for Low Levels
Yant Nimrud is a dead man. This is not widely known, but he is. The Duke of Loengria’s huntsman and a minor baron in his own right, he is famed for his skill as a tracker and fighter. But this is no longer relevant, for Yant Nimrud is a dead man.
He attacked the Duke of Hostock in the Duke’s chambers before he was subdued. None know why; he had been well treated in Hostock; and there are no direct tensions between the two Duchies.
He might have been killed then, had he not been so well known. Nimrud is not one to seek fame, but his actions have spoken loudly. Every aristocrat knows his name, as do many of their retainers. The Duke of Loengria would also take his death poorly. So he was able to escape Hostock when being taken to a remote castle, despite his wounds.
Now either he must die, or he must be brought to Hostock to be a tool of Ducal realpolitik. For it would surely embarrass the Duke of Loengria to have his huntsman accused of being an assassin.
A wounded man of Nimrud’s size was seen pushing a handcart in Jurwood. Yant had clearly resorted to disguising himself as a peasant, an unexpected move for a man of his rank, though he had obtained money from somewhere. Unconfirmed reports mention him walking up into the farmland in the west of the Barony of Jurwood. Beyond that, lies the hill country and the border of the Duchy of Loengria.
But that was two months ago. The Duke’s agents have been foxed at every turn. Nimrud has not surfaced and is said to be on a long hunting trip.
The Duke’s stewards, acting through certain parties have begun to look for someone else to find Nimrud. Alive would be useful, but dead would be satisfying. 


How Nimrud went to Ground
Nimrud received funds from Haggard, the son of a Loengrian baron in Jurwood. He has not yet told anyone on Loengria yet, but his account books do show a large sum paid out around the time that Nimrud would have been in Jurwood. If he is quizzed directly about Nimrud, he will write to contacts in Loengria trying to get help for Nimrud.

Nimrud hinted to Haggard than he would lie low and then try and head back into Loengria. Haggard believes that this is what he has done. Haggard did not realise, then or now, quite how beaten up Nimrud was, or how taxing the hill country can be for a lone traveller on foot.
Nimrud passed through the village of Allingthal. He could not pass himself off as a tinker or peddler and said he was a travelling labourer. When offered work on one of the larger farms, he refused it, saying that he was bound for a farm further up the road.

Nimrud: His Hideaway
There is a dense scrap of woodland between two farms several miles away from Allingthal. Both farmers treat it as theirs, though it is no conceivable use to them. Nimrud is here, in what was once a sunken lane but is now thickly overgrown with thorn bushes and nettles. He has dug into the topsoil and soft sandstone, turning what was a hollowed-out shelter into a narrow entrance and a gallery back into the earth perhaps ten feet, where the roots of a large thorn bush help make a small grotto. Here he has placed a short chimney, so that a small fire can be lit at night. The burrow is reinforced with short poles, taken from a coppice. The handcart was dismantled to get it into the sunken lane; portions of it have formed a neat door to the burrow. This has now been carefully camouflaged. The only portions not used in the burrow where the metal rimmed wheels – which Nimrud found difficult to dismantle without causing too much noise. These were thrust into a thicket.

Nimrud: His Habits
Beyond the burrow, Nimrud has several other destinations. He makes use of a nearby stream for water and to wash. Several yards from the bank, several shallow scrapes in the earth show that he has become accustomed to use this spot as a latrine, carefully distant from the burrow. He is inclined to visit this in the morning, when Gilherz is milking his cattle.

A warren to the south serves as a spot to snare rabbits. These have served as a main source of fresh food, though he has done a little fishing, upstream from the washing area. He is able to forage for some food elsewhere.

A ditch with loose earth in it by a field edge indicates the spot where Nimrud has the spoil shifted by his excavations.
On Gilherz’s farm an unused shepherd’s hut works in two ways for Nimrud. It might act as a refuge for him, and he has concealed a few iron rations there. But it might serve as a decoy, so he has been discarding some of his scraps there, as if he has been using it regularly. Even if he doesn’t stay there, he monitors it, often around noon. He will occasionally build a small fire there in the early hours of the night.
Nimrud has also cultivated a barn on the outskirts of Beckwinth’s farm as a temporary hideaway, making sure he knows his way in. He will return sporadically to see if anything has changed. Nimrud only approaches the barn when in the cover of darkness.
The now-largely healed Nimrud has barely spoken to another human being in weeks. The work of his burrow occupied him for a time, but now his main structures comes from revisiting these locales. He will visit each of these at least once every three days. 

Allingthal is in the East.The dot marks Nimrud's burrow.The squares mark the habitats (From the top, clockwise: The fishing spot, The washing area, The shepherd’s hut, The warren, The field edge, The barn.) 

Nimrud: His Equipment
At the burrow, Nimrud has preserved ten days worth of rations and three days worth of clean water (the water must be used sparingly). Bare trickles of water can be gathered from dew, rain and condensation, but not enough for him to work at full strength.
Nimrud has a long knife, a bill hook for clearing brush (treat as an axe, though it can’t be thrown- an agricultural tool bill hook, not a poelarm) and has improvised a spear using a pole and a third knife (breaks on a fumble). He also has a sling, several pointed iron spits for cooking (treat as a d4 spear) and a short, broad iron pick, rather like an entrenching tool (treat as a club).

Nimrud: His Tactics
Nimrud might once have been stronger than any given player. But his injuries and his time in hiding have made him not timid or feral, but unwilling to engage with his opponents.
If he thinks he has been identified outside the wood with the burrow, Nimrud will try and feint a trail away from the wood and then return by an indirect path. If directly pursued he may try to pick off his trackers, or set traps for them – but this is a last resort.
If the burrow is discovered whilst he is around from it, he will try and gather supplied from Allingthal. This will be done either by theft or he will trust to his growth of beard to conceal his identity when paying the last of his coin to gather supplies to try the hill paths.
If the wood is surrounded, Nimrud will go to ground and wait as long as he may. Once the water runs out, he will risk a Scouting expedition.
If he is actively besieged in the burrow, he will not try and dig his way out (too hard, too loud and obvious to his besiegers). If the chimney is blocked, he will suffer the lack of fresh air and light. He will aim to kill the first man that comes through the door and can probably achieve this by merit of surprise.


Nimrud: Stats
Treat Nimrud as a 3rd Level Fighter, with above average if not extraordinary Strength and Dexterity. His endurance has been sapped through the long healing process; he is not suitted to a war of attrition. His concealment/stealth scores should be high, however.
He has no active mastery of magic, but the scenario loses its appeal if he can be brought low by any hedge wizard. Even if the GM does not choose to give him some sort of anti-magic amulet, he should have a high Will Save.


Other Hunters
Other agents of the Duke may be looking for Nimrud. These should be of a level with the players, somewhat similar adventuring parties. However, be warned. The more people looking for Nimrud, the more obvious they make themselves.

The Farmers
Gilherz lives to the east of Nimrud’s burrow. He lives on his farm with two daughters, two farmhands and an elderly female servant. He is generally suspicious of strangers on his land; even the seal of the Duke cannot phase him (partly because of his stubborn insistence on his rights, partly because he can’t quite believe that the Duke cares enough to come to his farm). He will reluctantly obey the local Baron (Rixon of Jurwood). He rarely has enough spare produce to sell.
Beckwinth lives to the West of Nimrud’s burrow. She lives on her land with a son and a daughter, her father-in-law, three farmhands and a serving girl. She is more welcoming of strangers than GIlherz, but still unwilling to let anyone trample her land. Beckwinth is willing to offer food and shelter – but usually at heavy rates. 


Allingthal and Jurwood
Allingthal is a small village, but big enough to contain a public house (not an inn – nobody stays there, though it acts as a de facto store), a smithy and a Shrine. The smithy only does very basic work; it will not sell any weapons beyond arrowheads and knives (though the knives are more meant as tools than anything else - you can't throw them reliably). You will struggle to find portable ‘trail ration’ style food. Peddlers visit at irregular intervals.
Jurwood is a market town big enough have available most general supplies (if not at city prices). No magic users or notable warriors have made a home here and finding plate armour or magical healing is impossible.
The land around Allingthal and Jurwood is well settled. Wolves are unlikely, orcs more so (though as one approaches the hill country, this may change). The climate is generally temperate, but the lack of extremes does not make it comfortable year round. Small woodlands, field boundaries and thick hedges make these lands denser than you would expect.


Nimrud: His Story
Nimrud will be almost glad to speak to another human being, even an enemy. His last actual conversation was with Haggard. This said, he is capable of suppressing his desire for talk.
If asked about his motives, he will be taciturn – at first.

Nimrud took as a lover a woman in Hostock. This was not generally known – she was from another land and not a part of the usual aristocratic circles. However, she was later arrested on false charges and died in custody. Rough treatment and an intermittent current of xenophobia brought this about, though the actual offenders among the Duke’s Men at Arms are unknown. The Duke would later discipline the more obvious bigots in among his guards in an effort to keep the peace.
Nimrud was more upset by this than he at first saw. Eventually, telling himself it was part of an exercise in stalking, he would ensure he came face to face with the Duke to confront him alone. He succeeded in this, but in the moment attacked him, before being subdued. 
In the moments of his attack and his preparations, he did not realise the political implications of what he did, seeing it purely as a personal affair. However, with a clear head he has begun to realise what a hole he is in: he is unlikely to be entirely safe for some time, and he has not had much in the way of revenge.
His return to Loengria and his home might allow for hiding and healing, and a quiet, private life. Or it might let him gather his strength for another assault on the unfeeling Duke.

What if nobody disturbs Nimrud?
In a week’s time, he will consider himself healed enough to make the trip across the hill country to Loengria. 

In a fortnight’s time, he will have cleared up most of his presence and gathered enough supplies to start the trek. Nimrud will steal if need be, or trust that his growth of beard will disguise him in Allingthal.

(If he detects his pursuers around this time, he will make for the hills).

After around sixteen days, he will reach the hills and be beyond the reach of the Duke’s law.

So, yes, this is effectively Rogue Male. And the GM may wish to read it in advance. Aside from that, the challenge of tracking and killing or capturing one well-armed, well-prepared opponent is novel enough change the tempo of play. Part of that change is about tracking limited food supplies, careful search techniques and the slow, gruelling nature of work in the field.

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