Mini-Review: A Patch For Pendragon

The fifth edition of Pendragon has proven to be its longest-lasting edition, having originally been published in 2005 and remained supported by some publisher or another ever since. The original release of 5th Edition, with its cover art depicting Arthur fighting… erm… a giant piggy, came about through ArtHaus Games – an imprint of White Wolf, would ya believe it – before the purchase of White Wolf by CCP and the departure of Stewart Wieck, whose baby the ArtHaus imprint was. Wieck’s new Nocturnal publishing house was the home of Pendragon for some years, until recently it made its triumphant return home to Chaosium.

Over time, Nocturnal made a couple of patches to the fifth edition core book. The 5.1 revision, which I never got around to looking at, incorporated some errata and corrections and sported new cover art of Arthur accepting Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. More recently, the upgrade to Edition 5.2 – the version you can currently get from Chaosium – took place. Folding in further corrections and embellishments, the book also benefits from an updated layout, which is delightfully clear and readable, and a gorgeous interior with subdued but welcome use of colour. Perhaps the biggest upgrade is the use of the absolutely gorgeous artwork from the Spanish translation of the game.

Is it worth the upgrade? In my case I’d say yes, if only because my old copy of the ArtHaus edition is beginning to feel fragile after the rigours of play in my old Pendragon campaign. On the whole, I would say that it’s still essentially the same take on the game as was offered up in 2005, so if you already have the ArtHaus version or the 5.1 edition you don’t urgently need the upgrade – but it is undeniably an upgrade and given a choice between 5.2 and another version I’d go for 5.2.

Chivalrously Keeping It In the Family

One of the most fun aspects of character generation in 5th Edition Pendragon is the Family History tables in the core rulebook. Assuming your campaign will begin in the Uther period and will focus on knights based around Salisbury, these tables allowed players to work out what their first PC knights’ fathers and grandfathers had accomplished in the struggles against the Saxons in previous generations – both giving starting characters a small amount of glory based on those deeds and a sense of family history (with attendant Passions) that help give shape and depth to characters early on.

It’s rather lovely, but somewhat limited to PCs starting out at that point of the Great Pendragon Campaign, in that particular region. That’s in general sensible for a starting Pendragon group – Greg chose Salisbury as being reasonably close to much of the early action, and I suspect most groups would want to begin their story at the beginning of the narrative.

That said, it would be nice to have this option for a wider range of starting locations if a referee has decided that they want to focus the campaign somewhere else, or if they want to give their players the option of playing knights from further afield who’ve come to Salisbury (or whatever other starting location the referee has chosen) to seek their fortune. After all, a consequence of the feudal system as depicted in Pendragon would be that you’d expect knights who either didn’t inherit much from their fathers or, due to being younger sons or being driven off their homelands, didn’t inherit anything at all to try their luck further afield in the service of lords with lands to spare. Similarly, it would be nice to have the option of using the family history system but with a bit more freedom about campaign starting date.

The Book of Sires, the first Pendragon publication to be released after the passing of Greg Stafford (it’s penned by Robert G. Schroeder), is a comprehensive expansion and rethink of the Family History rules, designed to accommodate knights hailing from nine different regions. Though obviously focused on Logres, this can also include knights hailing from as far away as Aquitaine, from regions which give rise to interesting dilemmas like Cornwall (who do you side with when Uther comes for Ygraine?), and even a newly-introduced subfaction of the Saxons who decide to side with the Britons against their Saxon kinfolk. It’s a simple idea which requires a lot of hard work and cross-referencing to produce the actual tables for, and Schroeder’s done sterling work in producing such and providing clear guidelines on their use.

Particularly welcome is the appendix which allows you to extrapolate the Family History process forwards, based on The Great Pendragon Campaign, to allow for campaigns starting in the Anarchy following Uther’s death or the Boy King period when Arthur makes his presence felt, which also feels very useful to me – I can see the Uther and Anarchy periods as being the periods groups are most likely to skip, if they’re impatient to get to Arthur himself, but equally I wouldn’t want a Pendragon campaign to start much later than the Boy King period because you don’t want to hit the Grail Quest or the Battle of Camlann without having built your own personal histories to be invested in when the rise of Mordred and fall of Camelot brushes everything away into the stuff of myth.

As one of the first fruits of Chaosium’s new stewardship of the grand old game, The Book of Sires is an important and useful addition to 5th Edition Pendragon; as far as that game’s supplements go, I would put this on the same level of importance as The Book of Knights and Ladies, the supplement which allows for generation of knights from beyond Salisbury. If this is the quality we can expect out of future Pendragon releases, then rejoice. Greg Stafford has left us, and is doubtless refereeing a Pendragon campaign in Avalon for Arthur, Morgan, Nimue and the other Ladies of Avalon (and is doubtless being very careful about his answers when Morgan queries the role of women in the game); meanwhile in the mortal realms, the game remains in safe hands.

Some Neat Pendragon Things

So a while back I managed to get my hand on a few pre-5th Edition Pendragon bits and pieces, and I could have sworn I’d reviewed them here but I hadn’t, so here’s my quick thoughts on them.

First up was a nice boxed set of 1st Edition Pendragon. Interesting in part as a historical item, it’s notable just how much of the structure of the game was in place right there from the start – in particular, the revolutionary personality trait and passion system was right there. 5th Edition is a bit more focused in the way the core book assumes that your homeland is Salisbury, which is sensible for making characters for the Great Pendragon Campaign framework because that’s at the heart of the action at the start of that, but this box was designed before that framework was in place and so offers character gen for knights from a range of homelands.

Whilst Stafford does note that the presence of female knights is, by default, assumed to be not a thing, he does point out that this is largely an upshot of the original troubadours writing to the social norms of their time, and that as residents of modern times we have the capacity both to work in our own ideas and draw on concepts and traditions of warrior women that the original troubadours might not have had access to. The set is also nicely rounded out with a poster map of Arthurian Britain, which will enhance play with any edition of the game.

The 4th Edition of the game is a big fat book and, unfortunately, lacks the focus of other editions. A desire to broaden the game opens up a range of non-knightly character generation options, including magicians, whereas I’m of the view that magic is not really a tool for PCs to use in a reliable, repeatable way in a Pendragon game – rather, it should be an environmental factor encountered in adventures, something outside of the PCs’ control and common experience most of the time which spices things up whenever it appears. In general, this dilution of Stafford’s original concept is unwelcome.

That said, 4th Edition did have some interesting supplements, such as Pagan Shore – a treatment of Ireland sufficiently definitive that the 5th Edition Great Pendragon Campaign actually recommends you consult it if the PCs go there. Penned by John Carnahan, it offers a view of a world derived from Irish mythology mashed up with an invasion from across the Irish Sea inspired in part by Henry II’s campaigns, offering the sort of mashup of history and mythology which has been part of the whole Arthurian deal ever since Geoffrey of Monmouth did his thing.

Pendragon (Actually) Comes Home

So a while back I posted an article called Pendragon (Sort Of) Comes Home, reporting on how the new regime at Chaosium and Nocturnal Press had reached a deal on collaborating on getting Pendragon-related material out there.

Well, we can drop the “sort of”: Chaosium just announced that they have regained the rights to Pendragon from Nocturnal. (Go read the announcement, by the way, it’s got a really lovely anecdote about White Wolf and Chaosium toasting each other at Gen Con once.) Whether this includes the new Paladin line isn’t clear, though since the print-on-demand proofs for Paladin were recently sorted out I’m not so concerned about that – delivery of that project seems to be imminent regardless, and given the new regime at Chaosium’s approach to Kickstarters I’m sure they would want to make sure everyone with skin in that game gets what they are owed if only to avoid damaging the game line’s reputation.

I imagine negotiations on this must have been grinding on for some time – you just don’t make this sort of decision based on a passing whim – so odds are Greg Stafford was aware when he died a little while back that this particular one of his babies would likely be coming home for good. Chaosium are retaining the current line editor for the game too.

Between a solid new RuneQuest and Pendragon coming back to Chaosium and Call of Cthulhu remaining the king of the Lovecraftian gaming space, it really does seem like Chaosium’s returning to its former glory. If the current management can just negotiate a deal with Michael Moorcock – who the old regime managed to annoy enough to make him pull the Stormbringer licence – then they’d really have all of their “greatest hits” back together under one roof.

Update: Nocturnal just posted an update to Paladin backers on this. They confirm that they remain responsible for delivering the backer rewards on the Kickstarter, which I guess would be one of the thorny points the negotiations behind this would have had to navigate.

The print run for Paladin apparently had to be delayed a wee bit in order to co-ordinate everything for Chaosium, but is now back on track. I guess we’ll see if the books end up with a little Chaosium logo on them when I get them.

Pendragon (Sort of) Comes Home

So Chaosium have just announced that they’re partnering with Nocturnal Media, in order to provide assistance in marketing and distributing Pendragon and helping them with the fulfillment of various Kickstarters. The press release does not specify which Nocturnal Kickstarters are involved, but it seems a fair bet that one of them is Paladin, an adaptation of Pendragon to focus on the legends of Charlemagne.

This is a bit of a homecoming for Pendragon. Its first four editions were published through Chaosium – it was Greg Stafford’s pet project, Chaosium was Greg’s company, no-brainer, right? Right – until, that is, the late 1990s, when the collapse of the Mythos card game and associated tensions meant that Chaosium needed to trim the fat and Greg found himself wanting to disengage from the company and see about working with other publishers. (This is in part how we ended up with Mongoose and Design Mechanism publishing editions of RuneQuest before its return to Chaosium.)

As it happened, former West End Games designer Peter Corless, who had largely left the games industry to work at Cisco, fancied playing publisher as a bit of a side gig (and, presumably, was a big Pendragon fan). Corless had given Chaosium a substantial loan at one point to keep operating, which they had defaulted on; in order to make good, Corless accepted instead of payment on the loan the full rights to Pendragon. Setting up Green Knight Publishing, Corless kept the Pendragon flame alive when Chaosium might have otherwise neglected it, until in 2004 he sold the rights to White Wolf, who put the fifth edition (and the mighty, magnificent Great Pendragon Campaign) via their ArtHaus imprint.

Fast forward a bit to the end of White Wolf as we formerly knew it, with CCP buying out the company. Stewart Wieck eventually decided to leave White Wolf, the company he’d co-founded with Steve Wieck and Mark Rein-Hagen, to go it alone, so he made his farewells, picked up the rights to Pendragon (which White Wolf was at this point more or less no longer interested in), and set up Nocturnal Media to keep the flame alive, with Greg issuing further 5th Edition material through Nocturnal.

Som years later, Stewart undertook a brace of ambitious Kickstarters – ranging from revivals old Lion Rampant/early White Wolf ideas like Whimsy Cards and Storypath Cards to new variants of existing properties like Paladin to English translations of highly-regarded Spanish or French games like Aquelarre or Wurm. Unfortunately, before completing these projects Wieck died incredibly suddenly and unexpectedly.

That’s how we get to this current pass. As a backer of several of those projects, I can confirm that whilst progress has been happening, it’s been agonisingly slow. Why this is the case isn’t always particularly visible, but it’s become evident that Stewart didn’t exactly leave behind an especially clear and unambiguous action plan for getting the Kickstarters sorted. Things which had been believed to have been in hand weren’t, and stuff which had been promised ended up getting overlooked, and in general it’s been a bit of an awkward slog.

Chaosium getting involved sounds like a really positive step to me. Kickstarters which overrun have a way of becoming financial millstones around a publisher’s neck (because they budget for X amount of work and it turned out to take X+Y amount of work to actually get the job done), and when multiple projects are in place there’s a dangerous temptation to rob Peter to pay Paul, using the funds of one to get a different one finish in the hopes that the income stream from selling the project might cover the gap. I don’t know whether that’s the case here or how healthy Nocturnal’s finances are in general, but the aid of Chaosium in distributing and marketing Pendragon and associated materials is surely going to be a big help.

On top of that, it’s worth bearing in mind that the new regime at Chaosium – made up of the key players at Moon Design publications, one of the various producers of Glorantha material during Greg Stafford’s sojourn away from Chaosium – were brought in by Greg and Sandy Petersen in part to act as a crack team of Kickstarter troubleshooters. The major problem they were facing was taking the mess that the old Charlie Krank-led regime had made of the Horror On the Orient Express and Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarters and untangling it, and they did a pretty fine job. If anyone has a track record of giving a troubled Kickstarter delivery process a much-needed shot in the arm, it’s them.

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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