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The Low Crusade

As told to me by GM Wayne Shaw; this was a one-shot scenario he ran at an FRP game con (presumably DunDraCon 4, in February of 1979), and for years afterwards would relate it as an example of "what not to do"; I do not know how much embellishment occurred in the intervening time. Some of the more overtly suicidal players were allegedly recruited on-the-spot from passers-by in the hotel corridors to fill out the billets -- always a recipe for some "interesting" antics. The title comes from a passing resemblance to Poul Anderson's novel The High Crusade.

They called themselves "Free Traders", and I use the term loosely -- between 20 and 30 of the strangest and most random crazies you're ever going to see, trying to "player-character" their way through anything and everything, with everything that could possibly go wrong doing so. The ship was a 1000-tonner, with two laser turrets and a missile turret, enroute to a world where a small number of high-tech offworlders lorded it over a Tech 2-3 population.

At the start, the strangest one was a total paranoid who slept in a sleeping bag on the bridge because he was certain someone would try to hijack the ship out from under him. Guy always wore a big Panama hat and carried a Samurai Sword -- always drawn. He even slept with that sword in hand -- I don't think he even had a scabbard for it.

According to my informant, "Panama Hat" was a pirate wanna-be, whose plan was to wait for pirates to attack the ship, then cut down the bridge crew, turn the ship over, and join the pirates, who would of course welcome him. Never mind that he's already demonstrated an SOP of heavy-duty treachery towards his former shipmates...

Well, Panama Hat was the first to die -- didn't even make it to planetfall. The sonofabitch waves his sword in the face of the Imperial Death's Head Cybercommando one time too many. The Cybercommando grabs it by the blade, snaps it into several very small pieces, and tells Panama Hat that next time, it'll be him. So what does the idiot do? He decides to "get even" -- goes down into the ship's belly turret and jettisons all the missile ammunition! He lived just long enough for the Cybercommando to track him down, drag him to the airlock, and do what he said he'd do. Panama Hat's hat came floating out of the airlock, followed by Panama Hat's head, then his arms, then his legs...

The rest of them make planetfall. Except there's no sign of life -- no beacon, no approach control, nothing. They come in where the port should be, and find it still there but abandoned, with some of the buildings burned out and others stripped. What happened was the low-tech locals had rebelled against their high-tech overlords -- and succeeded. That alone should have tipped them off!

Now, free-traders tend to be thieves by nature, and this crowd especially. So with a cry of "Let's Loot!" they start stripping the port ruins of everything that isn't a fixed geographical feature of the planet. Even when they figure out the local situation, even when they see the sabotaged ships and small craft, even when they encounter rebel scouts in the ruins, they don't bother to post sentries or set alarms or anything - "They're just Tech Two! They're primitives! What can they do?"

What the "primitives" did was wait for nightfall, roll half a dozen barrels of gunpowder up against the landing gear, and blow the landing legs off. Now they have a 1000-ton ship almost rolled over on its side, making a safe takeoff problematical; what do they do?

The pilot and a couple others start repairing the damage; the rest of them get fixated on revenge against the locals who bombed their ship. They send the ship's air raft up to scout around, find a castle over the hill that seems to be Rebel HQ. With the hill in the way, they can't bring the ship's lasers to bear; missiles would do the trick, but Panama Hat jettisoned them all, remember?

So everyone starts digging weapons out of their baggage -- and High passengers have a ton of hold space to go with the stateroom. Not just weapons, but heavy military shit -- like a full suit of powered armor with all the built-ins, a full-tracked, army-issue APC, a set of anti-tank tac missiles -- I don't know where they picked up all that heavy gear, and I'm not sure I want to. Then there was the "light stuff" that seemed to sprout out of nowhere -- assault lasers, machineguns, tripod lasers, plasma guns, grenade launchers; I was half-expecting someone to pull out an "antimatter hand grenade" or "nuclear-tipped peashooter"... (Maybe Panama Hat wasn't the only pirate wanna-be in that bunch?)

First, they stick a couple of the machinegun-sized weapons in the air raft and take it out to shoot up the castle. Air raft goes out -- air raft comes limping back with a ballista bolt through one grav-pod.

So they decide to attack by land instead of by air. "Panzer Man" fuels up his APC, they drop the heavy weapons onto the pintles, as many as can fit pile aboard, and their punitive expedition sets out for the castle.

And soon discover you don't need high technology to rig a tank trap. APC drives through an obvious gap in thick woods, APC disappears with a CRASH!, APC is on its side at the bottom of a big tiger-pit. They abandon the APC -- what are they gonna do, dig it out by hand? -- take all the weapons they can carry, and try an infantry attack, on foot. No organization, no plan, just a lot of high-tech weaponry.

They get within range of the castle, open up -- and discover that 300 longbowmen can do quite a number on 30 riflemen. The only two that made it into the castle were Powered Armor Boy -- until they rolled some boulders off the parapet onto him; that and he got in the way of that ballista bolt -- and the Cybercommando, who was hell on wheels until they hit upon falling back and shooting instead of trying to melee him.

When the survivors got back to the ship -- fighting off cavalry sorties the whole way -- anything resembling organization died completely; from now on, everyone tried their own plan to nail the castle, leaving the pilot and his followers to continue repairing the ship. I can only list the ideas and attempts; imagine all of the following going on more-or-less simultaneously (and seriously getting in each others' way):

  1. Two ex-military commando types try a stealth raid. One finds out the hard way that the moat is stocked with some nasty fresh-water carnivores, the equivalent of piranha. The other makes it inside -- and discovers the rebel lord has a "court wizard"; a psionicist who while chalking his pentacles and chanting his "spells" is keeping up a low-key Life Detect for any intruders. And when he detects one, he summons the night watch and guides them in using his knowledge of the castle and telepathic instructions. So they nailed him.
  2. Another has the bright idea to unship one of the laser turrets and fit it on the air raft; with the rest of the air raft's bed crammed with batteries and capacitors, they should have enough charge for a few ship-laser rounds which should be enough to blow a breach in the castle walls or topple the keep. He talks a few of the others into trying his scheme, and they leave in the newly-converted air raft/gunship while he stays behind.

    They start shooting up the castle, the laser steam-exploding major holes in the walls and towers -- until the beam sweeps across the mirrors fitted into reflecting corners, and bounces back onto the air raft. Even weakened by reflection, it still toasts the floater. The one survivor barely manages to limp back to the starport ruins, crash what's left of the air raft within sight of the ship, find Bright Idea Boy, and blow him away. ("How'd it go?" BLAM! BLAM! BLAM! BLAM!...)

  3. The guy with the tac missiles lugs the launcher and rounds up the hill to where he has line-of-sight on the castle, and starts setting up. He neglects to post guards or set up a defense of his position, and gets attacked and captured. The locals figure out how to fire the thing, and start practicing on the ship, which is also in line-of-sight.

    Oh, yeah, when Bright Idea Boy and his minions unshipped a laser turret, they would have to pick the only one that could bear on where the missiles were now coming from...

At this point, with each missile shot landing closer and closer to the ship, the pilot has had enough. The landing gear isn't fully repaired, one of the turrets is missing, the ship still lists like a drunk monkey, he could just as easily splatter on the hillside as reach orbit and Jump point, but all the locals need is to make one lucky hit on the ship and they're all going to be staying. Firing up the engines while his surviving "comrades" try to all fit through the airlock at once, he lifts ship -- and manages not to pile up the ship between surface and Jump point, leaving at least half of the "Free Traders" who started on this expedition either dead or prisoners on-planet.

Primitive does not mean stupid.

However, "Player-character" in this case...