Pendragon: Another Example of Character Generation Done Right

So, it transpires that the “beginners” I had previously agreed to run a game for aren’t actually as inexperienced as I had been led to believe, which at least meant I could go a little more broad in the selection of games I could suggest for them. In the end, we went with Greg Stafford’s excellent Pendragon, since the group wanted something fantasy-based and historically themed.

We just had the character generation session, and player feedback is very good. Pendragon is the only game I can think of which does the whole Forgey “let’s make a very focused game about a very specific range of characters for a tightly defined play experience” thing and actually makes it work for campaign play. (This is impressive considering that it first came out in 1985, but there you go.) The primary way it accomplishes this is by encouraging a focus on the player characters’ families; you usually only go on one adventure a year, with downtime spent dealing with the management of your knight’s manor, and whilst the effects of aging can be staved off for a while, sooner or later it’s going to hit you like a hammer. Since the Arthurian saga goes on for decades, this means player characters need to rear heirs who can take up adventuring once their parents are too elderly for quests.

The plan for the moment is to play a short campaign and then see how we feel about continuing, but there are still benefits to incorporating this family-based stuff in the game.  Notably, for characters beginning with the game’s assumed starting premise (knights of Salisbury in King Uther’s time), there is offered an optional system for randomly determining the deeds and cause of your father and grandfather. The players decided to go with this option and it went down really well, because it’s basically a method of giving them 75 years of backstory to give the action of the game some context without just tossing an enormous background document at them and saying “here, read this”. By making a game of the backstory, the players become invested in it, and even though the starting Glory you get from it tends not to be that different in the end (all the PCs are within about 100 points of each other), there’s still fun to be had from working out whose father was most prestigious.

I was worried that character generation would spill over into two sessions, but actually once this history part was done statting up the player knights was a brisk process – and I think it helped that we got some form of gameplay out of the evening through the history generator, even if it is mostly random chance. Each of the characters seems to have already developed a distinctive niche of their own, in part through the history process and in part through the personality traits system, and I think everyone is excited to see what happens when we unleash them on Dark Ages Britain – I know I am. I’ve said before that if a character generation isn’t fast, it should at least be fun, and Pendragon seems to get the best of both worlds – family history generation is fun, and generating subsequent PCs within a particular family is fast.

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