Pendragon On Parade

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.)

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Story Before, Story Now, and Blimey, If It Don’t Look Like Story After Tomorrer

I’m of the view that a lot of the work Ron Edwards and other theorists did at the Forge, back when that place had an active RPG theory discussion forum before Ron Edwards declared the theory complete and shut the board down (one of many things Ron has done over the years which convinces me that he’s a really terrible academic), had a net negative effect on RPG discourse. The biggest achievement of the Forge, I think, was to provide the networking opportunities, pooled resources, mutual encouragement and exchange of advice necessary to cultivate a new wave of small press and self-published RPGs, but that has everything to do with logistical and commercial know-how and nothing to do with the RPG theory ideas they popularised.

Whilst some Forge ideas are useful in a very few contexts (usually when talking about the failures of Forge theory, but occasionally for other purposes), equally a lot of it is quite jargon-heavy – and worse, it’s a jargon which is primarily engineered by someone (Ron) who makes it quite clear that there are some types of gaming experience he specifically wants to promote and be partisan towards, whilst there are other (commercially successful, critically successful, and enduringly popular) models of gaming he is actively and overtly hostile towards. This terminology obfuscates a lot of Forge rhetoric, and in addition if you buy into the terminology too much it becomes difficult to impossible to even talk about certain kinds of game.

If you’re using Forge talk to talk about Forgey games, then it sort of works because the designers of said games tended to refer directly to those ideas whilst designing them; you can easily find the Creative Agenda because the designers made damn sure to include it prominently, for instance, In other cases, when discussing games designed by people with an entirely different outlook, using Forge jargon at best it feels like discussing Buddhism using exclusively definitions and terminology from Catholic doctrine (the jargon doesn’t even relate to the material in question), or trying to discuss which variety of socialism is better whilst exclusively using definitions from anti-Communist literature (the jargon is actively hostile to even contemplating the sort of ideas you’re trying to express). This is a shortcoming when you want a terminology to talk about RPGs in general, but I suppose it’s a boon if you want to encourage the development of a particular type of game which isn’t well-served by major publishers (due, in part, to the necessity to go for a big tent approach when you get past a certain scale).

One of the few bits of Forge jargon I think is sometimes useful to use in other contexts is the whole Story Before, Story Now, and Story After deal. For those of you who aren’t aware of it, this is a way of looking at how a roleplaying game offers the experience of a “story”, which is something a lot of people in the hobby say they want but equally is something a lot of people disagree about when it comes to actually defining what it is or how to achieve it.  Roughly defined, these terms mean the following (note that this is not a chapter-and-verse quotation of Ron’s definitions, which evolve regularly as he updates some parts of his theories and disowns over parts, but a rough summary of the terms as they are most commonly used):

  • Story Before play is exemplified most obviously by prewritten modules and more or less all the refereeing advice White Wolf has ever written: the referee devises a prewritten plot before play commences (whether they do it for the entire campaign in advance, or immediately before each session). Here, storytelling is an exercise in planning out a plot arc for the campaign to follow.
  • Story Now play uses overt system methods to drag the process of telling stories into the context of the session itself. People have raging arguments about what this means because they often are working from different definitions of “story”. For example, if you define “story” the way Ron does, it’s “Commitment to Addressing (producing, heightening, and resolving) Premise through play itself”, then game mechanics which hardwire in a premise and steer the process of play towards presenting, heightening and resolving it are Story Now mechanics. (Dogs In the Vineyard was a good example of this, though I confess I sold my copy ages ago so I may be misremembering.) If you don’t agree with Ron’s definition of story, of course, the same Story Now techniques which tickle his pickle will set your teeth on edge and make your palms itch. Games gunning for Story Now generally try to minimise the distinction between “telling a story” and “playing the game” as they humanly can.
  • Story After play looks at story in retrospect. There’s no pre-planned plot from the referee, and there are no game mechanics to hardwire in a particular type of narrative. The game session is a series of things that happen; in retrospect, after the session, you can see about piecing together a story by looking at the events of the session in retrospect and identifying a narrative in that. (Note that if your definition of “story” is “a series of things that happen, told in order”, then there’s literally no difference between Story Now and Story After – they’re only two distinct types if you have a particular narrative theory about what a story is that is different or more narrow than “sequence of events”.)
  • Since the easiest way to understand the concept is as denoting when the bulk of the work of story construction happens, you could propose a fourth type of play: Story Never. This would be almost indistinguishable from Story After, except the effort to construct a story based on what happened in the game never actually happens: the RPG is approached not as an engine for creating stories but as a simulation for exploring worlds, and the stuff that happens in a session is, like the events of real life, just a bunch of stuff that happens rather than part of a cohesive story. Ron never talked about Story Never, mostly because he was working on the basis that nobody would ever dream of playing an RPG without thinking about story.

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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.