Friday, March 13, 2009

King Arthur Pendragon: An Appreciation

I've always loved King Arthur. Malory, Howard Pyle, Wolfram Von Echenbach, The Grail Stories--I was obsessed with it all. My Dad used to tell me stories about King Arthur when we'd go out to eat when I was four or five. I guess he figured that it was a way to keep me occupied. I remember once going to a medieval themed restaurant and listening with rapt attention to his half remembered stories of Arthur, Lancelot, Galahad, and the evil Mordred. Looking back I realize that he was probable picking details from whatever he could remember from when he read the stories when he was younger and whatever movies he could remember (likely films such as Knights of the Round Table).

Which brings me to King Arthur Pendragon by Greg Stafford. This game is one of my favorite roleplaying games of all time and my admiration for it has only grown over the years. Greg Stafford has said the game was a work of love for him, and I have to say that it shows. Moreover, the game's rules (despite multiple editions and being published by three separate companies) have essentially stayed the same for over twenty years. And that's a good thing. In a world where new editions of games are coming out all the time that supposedly "improve" on previous ones Pendragon knew something that it might not always be bad to listen to: if it isn't broken don't fix. Different editions have made adjustments to various parts of the rules but most of the changes have been relatively minor and often were for the better. No attempt was made to pull out core mechanics and "re-imagine" the setting. The game was perfect the way it was.

Pendragon was quite innovative for its time as well. Foremost among these innovations were things like passions and personality traits. Some have balked at the idea that a die roll might tell me how my character might react to something but lets take step back and look at the source material. Do the characters in the Arthur stories behave in such a way that they are always doing the tactically smart thing? The best thing? No. They make mistakes. Epic HUGE mistakes. They fall in love with people they shouldn't. They betray each other. Traits and Passions are ways to have characters do those things that really push things in unexpected direction. My group really liked leaving some important decisions up to the dice. And you needn't use traits and passions all the time--they become important at various key points. They should be a resource for deepening the characters rather than something the group should feel slavishly bound to.

The PCs are also bound by their social obligations and responsibilities. Characters are a fundamental part of the game world's society. No wandering sellswords with no social connections in this game.

However, my favorite element of the game is the seasonal advancement. Pendragon plays out over YEARS. In just a few sessions your characters might have aged several years. They grow older like real people. They have losses. They have families. And they die. That's one thing you know for sure in Pendragon. That if you keep playing--eventually the character is going to die. Combat (and the combat is deadly!) or just the advancement of time--one of them will win out in the end. It occurs to me that this sort of advancement could be (and likely has) been utilized by D&D to reflect a different sort of campaign that's more clearly medieval in tone.

Greg Stafford has a website where he's putting new PDF and print supplements for the game as well as lots of free content. Check it out--there's some great stuff there.

Check it out at:

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