I learned about an old RPG recently. The first edition of it was released in 1985, so it’s been around longer than me. I got my book for it this week, and I’m playing fast catch up. I really want to add it to my repertoire, but it’s very different than D&D (or at least, what D&D became), so I have to learn it as an alien system instead of a modification. So my spin up time is going to be slower than with some other games modes. Still, I am SUPER excited about this game, some fears notwithstanding.
So this is my list of talking points if anyone was Valorous enough to ask me what I think about this RPG.
Brief summary of the game
So before I hop in, let’s talk about what’s going on. Pendragon, or more accurately King Arthur Pendragon, is an RPG based in Arthurian legend. The players take the roles of knights, and protect the realm, manage their estates, and leave a legacy for their children, as time marches on.
Excitement 1: A game designer who knows his stuff
I don’t have all of the pieces, so I can’t fill in the history of all the bits and pieces, but this 5th edition of Pendragon feels polished in the way that D&D’s 5e doesn’t. And I think a big part of that is the foundation. D&D has evolved into an ouroboros of a game, where it’s a system best suited for playing D&D. You can play other types of games, but D&D5e has made design decisions intended to entice old players back in, while being accessible to new players. A daunting task that leaves us with many mechanics that feel vestigial.
Pendragon, on the other hand, is designed for one thing: To let you play as a knight in a certain time and place. The mechanics are (AFAIK) basically the same as the 1e version, except there’s been 30 years of streamlining, summarizing, and reworking. Honestly, flipping through Pendragon feels like running your fingers over a hand made, finely sanded maple wood credenza. There is this feeling of satisfaction in just touching the thing.
The fact that the book has passages from Malory to illustrate what game mechanics would look like in actual legend is just icing on the cake. Greg Stafford obviously loved this mythos, and the refining of this RPG was to make that experience as authentic as possible.
(Fun fact: I wasn’t sure if “mythos” was the right word, so I googled it. Not only was the definition correct, but the example was “The Arthurian Mythos” so that was cool.)
Excitement 2: Things Baked In
One of the cool things that the refining and grounding of this book provides are things that are built into the core structure of the system that other games barely include as an afterthought. For instance, running an estate, getting married (which is not the same as falling in love, which is another thing this system does), a big list of things. But one of the things that stood out to me was their mass combat rules. I don’t grok them entirely yet, but from what I understand of the skirmish rules, Players fight things out like normal, but the fate of their men is a simple die roll. This roll converts itself into percentages of your men wounded, captured, or slain.
It’s such a simple idea, and it works SO much better than anything else I’ve seen. I’m still building my thought castle for this game, but it seems to have a lot of things like that.
Another thing that is modelled and the reason why I found this game is that the season for adventure only lasts a short time, and then the players return to their estates for the winter months. There they grow in skill as they train and practice, until they age and begin to weaken as the years pass. Eventually, their sword will be lifted again.
Excitement 3: A Different Dramatic Question
You may have heard me yammer on about dramatic questions. I think it’s an important part of RPGs. D&D asks “Can you do this?” or maybe “What resources will this cost you to accomplish?” In Pendragon, the core dramatic question is “Would your character do this?” To this end, the system has a 13 point Virtue/Vice mechanic that describes, on your character sheet, whether your knight is more likely to be Energetic or Lazy, Honest or Deceitful, or Valorous or Cowardly. 13 sets of these. 9 point alignment, eat your heart out.
The best part about this is it’s not a binary thing. Your Virtue/Vice are a set of scales, and as you act, they tip one way or the other, making your action more consistent as we learn what kind of knight you are. Even Sir Lancelot has a chance to be cowardly, slim though it may be.
There are skills and some attributes, mostly for the combat portions of the game, but also for the courts of romance and intrigue (a different kind of combat?). But Pendragon has merged aspects of the story game with a mechanical crunch.
Let’s compare how a scene would play out. In a recent D&D game, my bard, Valerie Bronzewood Prettyfligh Khorvar, was confronting a bratty kid. I had decided that Val had been a governess to pay for school and would deal with the kid strictly. But I failed my Charisma check, and he succeeded on his saving throw, and it just kinda sucked.
In Pendragon, dealing with this kid feels like it would be Merciful/Cruel. The kid is trying to tug on heartstrings. If you want your character to give in to the puppy eyes, roll Merciful. If you want to resist with a stern hand, roll Cruel. I’m going to give Lady Khorvar a 10/10, and decide she’ll roll Cruel. She’s a Nanny Mcphee, not a Maria von Trapp. Actual dice… I rolled a 5, which is a success. Valerie would be able to keep her stern demeanor.
In the name of instruction, if she had failed her Cruel, she would then roll a Merciful. A success would be the same as if she had chosen to have her heart melt at the urchin’s sad eyes. A second failure would mean it’s up to the player how to narrate their part of the interaction.
So yeah, a super interesting system. Not based on Try/Fail, but rather a This/That system. Super cool.
Excitement 4: The Martial Prowess of the Knight Rampart
There is one try/fail system in the game and that’s combat. I don’t have it all figured out yet, but what I have figured out, it looks like a lot of fun. Knights were special, because they were highly trained and the best equipped fighters on the field of battle. They defends their lands, their people, their ideals, from a surprising number of invaders, even ignoring the mythical aspects of creatures like giants and dragons. Can a game make you FEEL like you are a master of arms?
Combat in Pendragon is interesting, because it took me a while to grok it, but once I did, I can’t understand how it would be modelled any other way/ (I mean, I understand the Mechanics and Gameplay reasons to do combat other ways, but this is the second game I’ve ever seen that handed combat to Verisimilitude to manage.)
So each round in combat, you have one action. You can use it to attack if you’re close enough, or do some moving. The round happens in phases, so there is some semblance of simultaneity. People who are attacking or doing things go first, then the movers.
The cool part, though, is that they’ve added an extra wrinkle to the attacks. In D&D, the attacker swings, compared the result to the armor value, deal damage. In Pendragon, the Attacker rolls thier weapon, the defender rolls their weapon, and (simplifying greatly) one of them comes up the winner. The winner gets to roll damage against the loser, then the damage is reduced by the armor values. And then it could happen again, if the defender decides to use their action to retailiate.
Which, think about it. If you run up and attack Lancelot, he’s just going to disembowl you without thinking. You don’t get a chance to attack him, then wait for his round to destroy you.
You have to get a couple of guys together to give Lancelot a workout. But if you don’t rough him up fast, he’s going to take you out one at a time.
This is only the tip of the combat iceberg. There’s a lot of stuff in there and it will take a while to entirely figure out. At least it appears that the basic combat turn is pretty straight forward. All the advanced stuff is what may require a flow chart.
Also of note, there’s a bunch of small things that reinforce what you should be doing, ie: playing a knight and attacking people with lance and sword. I think the combat system actually reinforces how dishonorable attacking with ranged weapons is, which is a fascinating thing. In D&D, ranged is just the tactically best option. Same with Skyrim. But here, if you’re good at melee, you want to close that distance and dominate.
Excitement 5: De-abstracting Hitpoints
As I explore the first edition of D&D, one of the things that strikes me is how forgiving modern editions are. I’m not talking Save or Die effects, which I don’t agree with, but rather the amount of hit points, how easy it is to recover, and how hard it is to die. There is plenty of drama available in any method, but 4e and 5e make the players into super heroes, while older editions make the loss of a single hit point matter to your session. If hit points are hard to get back, then losing 1 to a giant rat, or to a small trap reduces how deep you can delve for treasure. Gameplay is less about beating the other guy and more about surviving throughout.
Pendragon makes health a valued commodity by making the recovery very difficult. AFAICT, the highest you can EVER get your healing rate is 4, meaning you recover 4 hit points a week. On Sunday at noon, interestingly enough. But lasting until then is not simple. If you’re below your Unconsciousness score, you’re out of the fight and you’re confined to bedrest until you recover. If you are at 0 hp or lower, you have until midnight. If you’re not in positives by then, you die. And if you don’t take care of your wounds, they can deteriorate and become sickly.
Look, the section on “Injury, Health, and Other Damage” is 7 pages long. A magical healing talent or a D&D potion of healing is worth a king’s ransom. (They have a table explaining what “a king’s ransom” is valued at, btw)
The idea that a party in Pendragon might get into an important duel, have a knight fall unconscious, then like in Princess Bride be hauled to Miracle Max and his friends need to do a quest for a rare herb that will let the knight return to the fray in days instead of weeks makes my little GM soul dance behind it’s screen.
Excitement 6: Scientific Advancements
One of the fascinating things about RPing in a known piece of history is we can see the future and plan for it. Some weapons, creatures, and even social concepts are locked behind a time gate. It’s at the GM’s behest that things emerge. Which is cool, for one, and allows the insertion of other devices as wanted, which is also cool.
A problem with D&D5e is that there isn’t much improvement in (non-magical) equipment. A player getting platemail is a momentous occasion, followed by no improvement to their numbers, ever. So being able to roll out new equipment and weapons for new generations sounds sweet.
I think it’d be interesting to have a long running game where an elf watches generations of humans age and die, but the new generations get to learn all the new fancy tech while the elf is a master of the old ways.
Having a short lived race like lizard folk would also be interesting, because humans would experience the same feeling as the elves.
(what if in a D&D game, I stripped magic down and dribbled that out at vague intervals? D&D is stilll not the right system for this, but still…)
Just an idle thought.
Excitement 7: The Fairer Sex
I’m impressed by the treatment of women in this book. Gender roles are a politically and emotionally charged topic. There is a lot of detail about the importance in the role in the wife in running the estates as the husband gears up to kick the Picts/Irish/Saxons/etc off the island. They could have stopped there, but they went foreword. The included a list of women who broke the mold, who took up the sword or bow to defend what they believe in.
Then there is the section on female knights. The instructions for them are…. To build them exactly the same as male knights, with a note that females are 15% smaller than males on average. But there’s no rules that change the numbers required.
The big impressive thing is the next few paragraphs. There are options that help GMs with what a female knight means for the campaign. Whether a lady knight should be in disguise as male, or if they’d face a lot of scorn in the open, or if women knights are just acceptable and maybe even common!
So the question of “What about the women?” has already been thought of by the game designers, which means the GM just needs to decide what level of acceptability makes sense at their table, and then players can know what they’re getting into. Consistency is a major part of GMing any RPG and having this issue pre-thought removes the pressure from the GM.
Not all games need this, mind you. I’m 100% okay with D&D’s no mechanical difference between genders, but for something that is based in history, it’s really well done.
Excitement 8: Tied to the Land and Noblesse Oblige
A common issue in D&D is the common occurrence referred to as “Murderhoboes.” In a lot of D&D, it’s hard to tie the players to a place, so they can run around without consequences, looting and killing. But in Pendragon, the knights can only exist if they’ve pledged to a lord and land, or they have holding of their own that pay for their excursions.
So players can’t go around, looting and plundering, because there are knights and lords who own those lands and vengeance would be meted out.
Also, the ideas of Glory and Honor are important in shaping player interaction. There’s no glory in killing
a weaker foe, and you can lose Honor in a lot of interesting ways. As long as players realize that their characters need to have Honor and Glory as their focus, and that they are nobility and that they have a duty to lift the lesser classes and be an example of chivalry.
While Glory is technically not XP, it’s got enough similarities that it might as well be.
Excitement 9: Amazing Intro Adventure
Systems are only as good as the games played on them. The core book has an adventure included. It’s hands down the best introduction that I’ve seen.
First, the scenario talks to the GM, giving them very clear things to say. It also does some behind the scenes explanation of what the players need to learn from each piece of the adventure. It also has a note explaining if you are short on time, you can skip parts of the adventure. That’s part of what amazes me about this. It’s designed to be played in a single session.
The scenario runs the players through a selection of skills challenges designed to demonstrate key parts of the system. A small joust, a horse race, a hunt, some bandits, a court function, all of the essentials to whet the player’s appetites and teach them the basics.
It’s a well written sample of the experience.
As excited as I am about this game, I know there will be complications. There always are, after all. I’ve found some of them, but there will undoubtedly be others.
Worry 1: Scenarios
One of the things that bothers me straight away is the lack of GM guidance. There’s some really cool advice given in the GMing chapter, but most of the space is dedicated to the really cool adventure, not “How to create a campaign.” There are scenario books, but I haven’t been able to find much about them, so I’d have to buy them blind. I do have a basic bestiary, but I don’t know how to judge what’ an adequate challenge for my party (I will say dragons are frickin’ terrifying, tho. It’s possible to slay one, but you have to be really really good, and really really lucky.)
I also don’t know what works for the framework. Can I throw my knights at a dungeon? What would work well for them? How much work will it be to convert challenges to Pendragon? What about monsters?
Worry 2: Splatbooks
In addition to the scenario modules, there are also splatbooks with uncertain contents. I do want more, like the biblio-dragon that I am, but I don’t know what will be worth my time. There is an amazing list that I found, that lays some of the thoughts out, which is handy, but I’m still not sure how do focus my acquisitions.
On a side note, the whole time I’ve been reading Pendragon, I’ve been thinking of my Appendix N and all the worlds that are moderately aligned to have Pendragon work as a system, except for all the setting stuff. And maybe I’ll do that work for the setting myself. (Suddenly super curious what Dislanida would look like in Pendragon) but I’d rather use other people’s work, and not have to do the work myself.
Worry 3: Character Creation
I’m concerned about creating characters. There’s a lot of choices that are hard to judge during CC that have ramifications. There are also some choices that can make the characters vastly different in terms of ability. Which isn’t bad, per se, but it could be frustrating over a long term campaign. This is a game that really rewards luck. And while I am quick to sneer at people as they do their dice juju rituals, I can’t deny that some nights, dice roll badly and swapping them actually seems to help. It’s probably just confirmation bias, but it is infuriating how consistently un-random luck seems to be.
Now, characters becoming less balanced, if they ever were, is not a bad thing. People have different skills and as long as the GM is writing towards that, well, everything will be fine, I guess.
There’s also an interesting facet to the game, as they’ve decided that the core book is based in Salisbury, so there’s parts of character creation that are not a free choice, but are instead baked into the world and the character sheet. That makes it harder to change.
Worry 4: Examples
A small gripe, that has basically been resolved by my learning of the rules, but a lot of the examples include really odd edge cases that if you know the system, it’s a fine example, but if you’re trying to learn the system, can be confusing. Things like that mean when you’re chasing down a rule, it takes extra work to suss out exactly what needs to happen.
I’m going to have to build some flow charts for combat and some other mechanics, just to understand exactly how things are supposed to go.
Shout out to Dungeon World, which has some of the best examples of edge cases and how to arbitrate, and to Timewatch, which has some of the best repetition of rules, where anytime you look up a rule, there all the information is, instead of the information being compartmentalized and separated, like in Pendragon.
Worry 5: What is a Britain?
My final worry is about the setting. I know, in general, what the setting of Arthurian Mythos is supposed to be, but I’m not sure about the specifics. Like, I’ve seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but I don’t know how far apart villages should be. There’s a lot of minutiae that goes into a game and I know D&D’s numbers (or what numbers I can safely ignore).
Like looking at the Map, I can recognize some of the names, but I’m going to have to spend actual study to learn this world, and I can’t tell if that work will be worth while or not. And there is an entire new form of currency that I’d have to wrap my head around.
So yeah. I’m mostly excited about this game. I think it will make me a better player. I’ve started statting up characters, not nesicarily as a full knight, but at least their Traits, so I can roll to determine what they would do in a given situation. It’s a lot better than alignment, tell you what.
I don’t have a date for a session of this. Life is crazy. My semester break is coming up soonish, I might try it then. But until then, I’m going to keep learning the game and see what changes are made to my internal gaming kernel based off this game.
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