So, my long-running Pendragon game seems to be more or less officially dead – it’s been on hiatus for a good long while, at any rate, and nobody seems especially anxious to rekindle it. I’m not too disappointed, though, because we got through about half the Arthurian saga and ended with Arthur claiming the Roman Empire for himself, at the very height of his powers, which is a reasonable stopping point. But now it’s done, I think it’s high time I offered my general impressions on the game line and its associated bits and bobs here.
Pendragon 5th Edition
After subsequent editions expanded the scope of the game to the point of making the core book unwieldy and seriously undermining the premise, the 5th Edition of Pendragon – now published by Nocturnal Media but previously emerging from ArtHaus Games, an imprint of White Wolf – brought everything back to the central concept. Stafford casts the player characters as novice knights – the default is that they’ll start out in the service of the Earl of Salisbury – and sets the scene for gaming over the span of time covered by the Morte d’Arthur. (If you go with the assumed starting point, there’s a nice range of tables to let starting PCs work out what their grandfathers and fathers did in the time period between the Romans abandoning Britain to its fate and the rise of Uther.)
To a large extent, the system takes enough inspiration from Basic Roleplaying (save that skills are divided by 5 and skill rolls are made on D20s) that, whilst some specifics do differ (such as using the “blackjack method” to resolve contested rolls – seeing who rolled as high as possible without going over their skill rating – instead of using the resistance table, and the details of how critical rolls work), it’s basically a variant of the system. In fact, some ideas which first saw commercial publication in Pendragon originally emerged in Greg Stafford’s home RuneQuest campaign, such as the famous personality trait rules which track various behaviours on various scales which are balanced against each other and which go up and down in a manner which integrates nicely with the usual BRP advancement system – so, if you consistently act piously, you’ll see your Pious score creeping up, for instance. Where it can constrain player action, in some ways this can be useful as a roleplaying aid; in particular, it gets across the idea that people who are not accustomed to consistently acting in a particular way are going to be correspondingly less likely to act in that manner when they are under stress.
Another major aspect of the personality trait system consists of your Passions – the things your character deeply cares about, to the point where you can call on them to get truly epic bonuses to rolls. A knight whose Passion is up is a terrifying foe in a fight, and typically a battle between two well-armed and well-armoured knights who both have their Passions up will take a good long time and end only when one horribly maims or kills the other, which is very Malory. (Of course, your Passions can also be your ruin, with knights driven mad Lancelot-style for a time if their Passions are thwarted).
The other major addition to BRP that Pendragon offers is the Winter Phase, offering a chance for downtime and consolidation and to attend to personal plots, estate management, and family matters. This is another borrowing from Greg’s RuneQuest house rules which translates to Malory quite well; the assumption is that knights will at most have one significant adventure per year and then some downtime, with the adventure itself usually handled in a session or two, which allows the action of the game to unfold over multiple generations.
One important aspect of the Winter Phase is that it’s your chance to spend your Glory bonus; every time you earn a thousand points of Glory for celebrated knightly deeds, you get a point which can be applied to any skill, attribute, or personality trait you wish. This is important as characters get older because once they hit a certain point, they can’t add their usual training points to their attributes any more, and they will start making aging rolls which will deplete their attribute scores bit by bit. As a result, bonus points from hitting Glory landmarks become the only way you can keep your attributes at a viable level to keep your main PC viable as a regularly-played character, and at some point you end up having to pass the torch to your character’s children.
The system is wonderfully set up so that the pursuit of Glory is accomplished essentially by acting in accordance with the expectations of a knight in Malory; having extreme personality traits and Passions is as significant for your yearly Glory boost as being well-skilled at something. Glory is, after all, not the same time as being morally good or even a protagonist; a great villain can be Glorious just as much as a great hero, so long as they go about it in a way appropriate to the game. Thus, the best way to min-max the game is to buy into its assumptions and setting and style – in other words, do all the things I would personally consider as being laudable in playing – and Pendragon is therefore an admirable example of a game in which there is not a jarring disconnect between that which is game mechanically encouraged and that which the assumed settings and scenarios demand.
This whole “It’s not necessarily what you do but how Gloriously you do it” is also an elegant solution to the question of “What is there to play for in a game where the overall course of the Arthurian saga is set?” The answer Pendragon offers is that the results of the novel new scenarios your group comes up with for your knights’ adventures are up for grabs, but the outcomes of the major events of the Arthurian myth are not – so when those come onstage, you worry less about changing what happens and more about interacting what happens in a Glorious manner. For instance, the battle system in the rulebook is geared less towards players determining the results of a battle and more towards earning Glory for how well you fight during it, which is a good example of how the game adapts to the constraints of working to a preset narrative. (You can’t really expect to help Arthur survive the final battle against Mordred, for instance, or to make him lose horribly against the various rebel Kings of England so his reign never gets off the ground in the first place.)
Of course, the original Malory depicted a society with fairly strict gender roles, which may not to be the tastes of all groups. 5th Edition acknowledges this and offers suggestions for traditions and inspirations for female knights, so if you want to have women on the Round Table you can, and gender-based stat differences are not enforced. For my game, the women in my group actually wanted to have the gender bar in place at least at first; one of them liked the idea of playing a man, whilst the other found the whole “woman masquerading as a man to prove herself worthy of being a knight” to be an exciting character concept and so the gender bar was necessary to make that character concept viable in the first place, but this is obviously something that different groups will need to come to a decision on among themselves and it’s nice that the core rules do not, unlike in prior editions, assume a particular answer to that question.
Appendices offer systems for classic Arthurian exploits like tournaments, hunting, and courtly love; the major thing the book is lacking is a detailed overview of the Arthurian saga itself. But that’s not such a major problem because all that comes in the other release ArtHaus offered for this edition of the game – the mighty, majestic, Great Pendragon Campaign.
The Great Pendragon Campaign
Although described as a supplement, The Great Pendragon Campaign is so central to Pendragon that I personally consider it to be a core book. Although snippets of it had come out before – The Boy King covering the Sword In the Stone era, for instance, or the more modest Pendragon Campaign – it was only with the release of The Great Pendragon Campaign that the full sweep of the saga, from the time of Uther Pendragon to the anarchy of the interregnum to the emergence, rise, and fall of Arthur himself, was offered in one grand supplement. The book divides the Arthurian saga into several distinct eras, and offers useful supplementary information on how equipment, fashions, styles and society develops over these eras. Stafford cleverly embraces the anachronisms involved in most renditions of the Arthurian saga by making them a side-effect of the Enchantment of Britain that Arthur’s reign represents; the early Uther period is a grimy, realistic Dark Age era, and the subsequent eras take in different phases of medieval England until the final phase borrows from the aesthetics of the Wars of the Roses that brought the medieval dream to an end in English history.
Within each chapter, the major canonical events that occur during each year are offered, for the referee to weave the PCs’ stories into and out of as they see fit. (I went a bit radical and had one of the PCs adopt the baby Arthur, for instance.) Numerous scenario seeds are offered up and battles are detailed, in sufficient number that you can pretty much run the entire decades-long campaign just from the material in this book (as I largely did, with a few major exceptions as the result of player action).
With subsections on faerie and extensive discussion of the various sources Stafford used for the various plot points, the Great Pendragon Campaign is the definitive text on Arthurian gaming, to such an extent that I wouldn’t consider running Arthurian gaming with anything other than Pendragon and this supplement unless I wanted to take a highly variant take on the saga that deviated strongly from the canon. The major thing it is lacking are NPC stats, though numerous are available in the very handy Pendragon Gamemaster Characters free download.
Most other supplements for the game, released by Greg Stafford directly or by Nocturnal after ArtHaus finished the job of getting the main two books out, offer interesting bits of extra detail interesting mostly if you are very keen on one aspect of the game or another. For instance, the Book of the Entourage, Book of the Manor, and Book of the Estate offer more detail on the estate management minigame, and are useful if you want to play a game with extremely detailed Winter Phases (or want to run an adventure that involves putting a large amount of detail into a knight’s home manor), whilst the Book of Battle offers a more detailed alternate battle system, Book of the Warlord gives more details on playing nobles a bit higher in the pecking order than your average knight, and the Book of Uther gives extra detail on Uther’s reign (and expands the Great Pendragon Campaign timeline backwards for the benefit of those who want to spend a bit more time in Uther’s reign – or to play a mini-campaign just set in Uther’s time). Major exceptions are the Book of Knights and Ladies, which provides the expanded character generation system for obtaining knights and ladies from an extensive range of backgrounds all across Europe and the Mediterranean (and half-faeries as well!), and the Book of Armies, which provides handy army lists for various different groupings of foes, both of which are generally useful without requiring adding significant detail to aspects of the game.
These are all offered to a high standard, and whilst implementing them all could get unwieldy – just running the Great Pendragon Campaign is ambitious enough! – they’re all handy to have close by. Although my own Pendragon experience is over for the time being, I’m satisfied with what we accomplished with the campaign, and I’m interested to see where the product line goes next.
Oh, and Le Morte d’Arthur is a decent supplement for the game too if you can get over Malory being amazingly repetitive at times. If you want more alternate, off-beat sources of pre-Malory Arthurian lore which go into areas that Malory doesn’t touch or glosses over, I can recommend King Arthur In Legend and History, edited by Richard White, as a fairly expansive reference.