Thursday, 20 February 2014

One Brief, Shining Moment: King Arthur Pendragon

The original Pendragon RPG cover
So last night marked the last session of my latest season of King Arthur Pendragon.  One of the largest battles in the myths, the epic Battle of Badon Hill, took place and almost every player character was either dead or seriously injured - of the 9 knights present we had 1 dead, 5 seriously injured and 2 who were seriously injured that would have died had it not been for a house rule.

King Arthur Pendragon is an unusual role-playing game in that while most games play quite unique stories, Pendragon has a single storyline most games use: The Great Pendragon Campaign, which gives rules and and order of events from Arthur's conception when his father Uther sleeps with Ygraine to Arthur pulling the sword in the stone out to Arthur's marriage to Guenever  all the way through to the battle of Camlann and the collapse of Camelot.  Players create their own knights to adventure in this world, but around them they meet major charactersand are affected by major characters like Lancelot, Gawaine, Tristram or Mordred.  In a manner of speaking, we all know "how it ends" - the game is more about how it ends for your characters and how their own adventures cross into the world-shaking ones.

The cover to the current 5.1 edition of Pendragon.

The game is split into eight phases, which correspond to eras usually around 10 to 15 years long.  Each season of Pendragon we run is a Phase from start to finish which gives us a good ending point - the status quo changes and we feel a part of the story is complete, though more is still to go.  So far we've had the Uther, Anarchy and Boy King.  Next up is Conquest followed by Romance, Tournament, Grail Quest and finally Twilight.

The coat of arms of King Lot, the main antagonist of Arthur for much of the Boy King phase.

The time passage between sessions is the big difference in Pendragon - every week or two we advance a year, so that in the final abttle of 518 at the end of Boy King player knights included the sons of characters who were knights at the start of Uther way back in 485.  If we continue those sons will themselves have children who can be player knights before Camelot falls - so by the time the game ends Ailsa could be playing the grandson of the first knight she ever played.  That adds a certain "epic" feel to the game - the years roll by, old grudges are kindled over decades and players can see kingdoms rise and fall and rise again.

Merlin as played by Nicol Williamson in Excalibur: the model for my game's version of the arch-druid.

The players sometimes find the rules a bit random, arbitrarilly lethal and overly crunchy for their tastes.  Pendragon has seen some minor edits from edition 1 to 5.1, but the changes are pretty minor and books between all editions are fairly compatible.  This means the game has a lot of 80s RPG concepts lingering on - random tables abound, character death is quite easy with bad luck and some sub-systems like mass battle or manor control have a lot of moving parts.  While Ailsa & Raj have played since the start and enjoy the game a fair bit, Molly & Matthew played then departed after a block each because it was just not gelling with them.

Its one-offs for the next few weeks, including a few people who haven't played with us before or in a while coming along.  Should be a nice wee change of pace.


  1. I say, a chance to comment on a post about our roleplaying game. That takes me back :-).

    I'm still enjoying Pendragon, although I certainly do feel the randomness of the damned thing sometimes. I've been very lucky not to die on several occasions and that can get a bit wearing.

    I must confess that I'm sorry to see Talib go. I've had fun with him, even if he is very underpowered. At least he got to show off the power of his 'girly weapon' before the end :). And I'm sure I'll get to know Bosley and see how he feels to play.

    As Charles pointed out, if we wanted to, this is actually a really good place to end the campaign from a PC/story point of view. Bawynne is dead, Talib has left and Paul is growing old, but with the chance to train up a whole generation of knights into the Order of the Lion (aside: I'm suddenly imagining Paul sitting on a beach somewhere, relaying missions to young Lions via some sort of voice transmission apparatus, a la Charlie's Angels... ;) ).

  2. Hello Raj!

    Yes, I too will be sad to see Talib go. Of all the foreign character options one of the ones which interested me the most was a Saracen-type - Sir Palomides is one of my favourite characters from Le Morte Darthur, especially because considering the time the stories are recounted they present a non-white, non-christian hero with a lot of respect. (Read more here: Talib helped add a foreigners viewpoint to the weird events of the last decade.

    I think it is fair to say that there's a definite lull now where characters could easilly retire and players could feel they've "done it". Especially since this phase had a clear "good" ending! That said, I'm confident that the urge to take Dolorous Garde will be too strong for you guys to resist for long...

    Also, if you're making the Charlie's Angels reference should I remind you what the name of Charlie's assistant and messenger to the girls was?

    1. "Also, if you're making the Charlie's Angels reference should I remind you what the name of Charlie's assistant and messenger to the girls was?"

      Heh, I had to look that up but that's an awesome coincidence :-D.