KING ARTHUR PENDRAGON: The Player Knights and the Epic Story

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People sometimes get confused when looking at King Arthur Pendragon. They wonder, “How can my knight matter is the story is already foreordained? How can my knight matter with all these big name knights running around? Should we change the story? Should we replace Lancelot and Gawain with our knights?”

I think those questions are worrying about the wrong things. Here’s why.

I see the game (and I’ve talked about this with Stafford and he concurred) that the game is more like walking The Stations of the Cross in the Catholic Church, if you will. Or, to get less denominational, like the stages of a Hero Quest in HeroQuest. The game asks the Players to sink into the story of Arthur’s rise and fall and experience it as participants who don’t get to change the big story.

Now, contemporary audiences are used to T.H. White’s The Once and Future King and the musical Camelot (based on White’s book), and other recent novels that deal with the “primary players.” But Thomas Mallory and the French romances are really inspiration for Stafford’s game.

If you’ve had a chance to read Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte D’arthur, you’ll notice, strangely, that there’s a lot of Arthur and Guinevere and Lancelot, but there’s a lot more about a lot of other characters. The book is really a collection of stories about lots of knights, of how they stand in relation to each other and how they stand in relation to Arthur.

Seen this way, you and your players are adding tales to that tradition (which I think is an utterly cool and wonderful thing), tales taking place in the foreground of Arthur’s rise and fall. Arthur’s rise and fall and the love triangle take place in the background of the Player Knight’s lives. That’s a huge shift in perspective as people usually think of it, but it’s very important: Arthur isn’t where the action is. Where the Player Knights are is where the action is.

This is all part and parcel of the Traits and Passions mechanics, as well as the bits about disease and aging and death. As Stafford wrote in an earlier edition of the game: “The game tries less to adapt the milieu to the modem mind than to instruct the modern mind to the milieu.” To this end, the Players are placed within a world where they are not the movers and shakers, where magic is outside of the control and understanding, where Passions and Traits and Disease and Death impress themselves upon the Player Knights — and the Players– in ways that would be unthinkable in other RPGs. The Players are both participant and witness, storyteller and shaman telling the tale. (Okay, flowery, but I think I’m being pretty true to Stafford here!)

Another important — really important — point. The Great Campaign is NOT a metaplot as we know it from game lines past. The differences are vital:

    • In a “metaplot” from most game lines the Players (and even the GM!) had NO idea where the story is going. In Pendragon everyone knows where the story is going. This gives the Players a chance to have their character knights stand in ironic relation to the larger back story of Camelot and Arthur’s rise and fall. This is a HUGE difference. It gives the Players immense creative possibilities to create amazing moments where the choices they make for their knights are fully informed by the story that everyone at the table knows, though their characters do not.
    • Because everyone knows the backstory, there is either complete buy in or there isn’t on the part of the Players. You never reach that moment when Great Uza (or whomever) dies when supplement #14 comes out, and one or more Players go, “What? That blows! Great Uza is why I was playing this game.”) With the Great King Arthur Campaign, what matters is how the Players choose to plug themselves in events that the know are coming. Will they side with Lancelot or Arthur when the split comes? Well, that’s something to anticipate and plan toward — not be surprised by later on.
    • There are no railroad tracks. Unlike most metaplot games, where the GM has to keep tearing up and laying down new tracks to make sure the Players don’t get to far afield of what’s really going on, what’s really going on in Pendragon is the lives of the Player Knights. It’s like setting a story against the back drop of World War II and having the Player Characters be the GIs working their way across Europe. Sure, someone might say, “Hey, If your not playing Churchill, Stalin and Hitler, what the hell’s the point?” But most folks can see how playing those GI will be full of drama even if the GM sticks the events of history and the PCs make choices and live out their lives within that drama. But this works in The Great Campaign (maybe counter-intuitively) because all the facts and history are known. In most of the metaplot games, the uber-NPCs really could move and shake everything the PCs had been doing into useless shambles because who the hell knew what the game company was going to publish next month. And the metaplot really was about the Churchill’s and Hitlers of the game world. In Pendragon all the stuff of the Arthur and Camelot and the love triangle is a given. Okay, then — that’s that that’s a given, what is left to explore and discover? The lives of the Player Knights!

So, I wouldn’t want the Players to replace the famous knights — though it’s certainly possible they’ll be sitting alongside them at the Round Table. The story that matters, however, is the story of the Player Knights, a new cycle of tales of men and women caught between the tension of inspiring ideals and grounded realities; the stories of how they conducted themselves as citizens, warriors, lovers, fathers and servants of a king in a land of god, war, fairies, and family.

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