The Use of Traits in King Arthur Pendragon


Mechanically, Traits tie to Glory. As the rules state, “The object of the game is to acquire Glory.”

A PC gets a value of Glory equal to a Trait value of 16+ each year. If, through the combination of several Traits reaching appropriate values, the Knight attains Religious or Chivalrous ideals, then he gains an extra 100 Glory a year.

Glory is the mechanic that Traits directly connect to. Glory is the game’s carrot. Taking Glory out of the equation of as a concern collapses the game. From high Traits to building fortresses to completing scenario quests — each of these and more advances a PC’s Glory.

This matters.

For every 1000 points of Glory, a PC can add 1 point to any Skill, Trait, Passion, or Attribute.

The ability to increase an Attribute is important, of course, as Glory is the only method of increasing an Attribute after character creation. Such increases are incredibly powerful for increase the Damage done by a PC, as well as how much Damage he can sustain.

But increases to Skills are just as important, as they drive the chance of, of example, a sword strike to being a hit everyone round, and even increasing the odds of getting a Critical strike on a regular basis.

And if a Player wants to repair damage to a fallen Trait or Passion (with a point lost due to adventures during the previous year’s play) he can spend the point to raise his Trait or Passion back to a Famous value, or simply raise it because he wants it higher.

All of this is to say that Traits feed directly into the mechanics of the game. High Traits provide Glory, which feed into increase of Attributes, Traits, Passions, and Skills.

Moreover, the game is designed to be played in a dynastic manner. That is, it is assumed that every PC will die at some point. It is vital that the PC father an heir. And when that PC dies, that heir will become a new PC for the Player to play. Importantly, 10% of the Glory accumulated by the father is passed to son. If the father had already accumulated several thousand Glory, the son is already on his way to gaining additional points in Attributes.

Keep in mind that if a Knight as three to five Traits at Famous levels, that’s 50 to 100 Glory additional Glory gained every Winter Phase. If he has Traits that offer Chivalrous or Religious Ideals, he’ll be racking up about 200 Glory every Winter Phase. Over five years of campaign time, that’s another point to be added as a bonus to the character. This is in addition to any other Glory gained for combat, marriage, gaining titles, completing quests and more. Traits matter.

Now, one might not think that having Glory as the driving engine of the game is a good idea. One might not like it. One might not want to use it. But to say that Traits don’t connect to the mechanics is incorrect.

If the Players of a game all have Traits of 15 or less, it is because they either don’t understand how the game works, ore they are averse to the risk of Famous Traits. And it is a risk. As the rules state:

Only famous traits and passions (i.e., those with a value of 16 or higher) are noteworthy, and such traits or passions must be tested with a die roll whenever character behavior is challenged in a crisis.
The Gamemaster should request trait rolls only when a trait is tested in an important situation. In general, trait rolls simulate situations in which a crisis forces the character to act unconsciously.

Note that the Famous Trait does not dictate behavior. What is at stake is that in a moment of crisis the character might impulsively act in the manner dictated by his Famous Trait. But he might not. Here is the Table:

Roll Result
Critical Success An experience check is normally gained, and the character acts strongly in accordance with the trait.
Success The character acts in accordance with the trait. The player may decide precisely what action ensues within that limitation. An experience check should be gained only if the action is somehow significant to the story or the character.
Failure Roll again, this time against the opposed trait. Success on this second roll means the character acts in accordance with that second trait. Failure indicates the player may choose freely how the character will act. No checks are given.
Fumble The opposite trait is checked, and the character immediately acts in accordance with the checked trait.

Note that the PC might end up behaving in the manner opposite his Famous Trait. Note, too, that the Player might end up in the position of choosing how is PC behaves even in a moment of crisis with a tested Famous Trait.That is, to have a Famous Trait is a gamble. It is uncertain.

This is different, for example, than FATE, where the Players decide when to invoke an Aspect for a bonus, or the Referee invoke an Aspect though Referee fiat. I suspect that for lots of people, this control that the Players have over when to invoke their Aspects is part of the appeal, if not the thing that makes it feel “modern” or better designed.This ties to Stafford’s purpose in designing the game the way he did, and the source material he wanted to emulate.

In the fiction (specifically Le Morte D’Arthur, which is the key touchstone for the game), knights are characters with strong, strong feelings. They feel strongly about God. They feel strongly about the women they love. They feel strongly about their lord, their king, their families. They feel strongly about Saxons and bastards who killed their father and whomever else they hate.

They feel strongly. And from these strong feelings come strong ACTIONS. And those actions in the tales are often things we would consider wrong, wrong, wrong. (You’ll note that there is no “Intelligence” Stat in Pendragon, nor anything like it. This is important!)

The Traits mechanics reflect that the Knights of Mallory are characters of behavior. They do not live by the psychological insights that we assume all characters live by in fiction (or we live by in life). They are their Traits: the behaviors the Knights are known for. “Known for” in Pendragon means a score of 16 or more. This nets the Player Knight Glory every year equal to the value of the score. It also means that when the Knight is tested in anyway along these behaviors he will usually react that way. (But not necessarily! GMs botch this rule all the time!) If the Player Knight has a Lazy of 17, he’ll most like be lazy — even if his lord asked him to stay up and keep watch that night on the castle tower. If a Player Knight is Honest 18 he’ll most likely tell the truth — even if it would be to his advantage to lie, even if it means putting someone he loves in danger.

Note that both “good” and “bad” behaviors gain Glory at scores above 16. What matters is to have a Trait of behavior so strong, the Player Knight is known for it. To be known is the goal of the game. The game’s reward system is GLORY, not experience, and Glory is the sum total of actions, behaviors, adventures, extravagant expenses, holdings of land and so on… all the things that make a Knight a presence in the world. You get Glory for being knighted as a squire, you get Glory for getting married, you get Glory for being given a holding, you get Glory for being present at the pulling of the Sword from the Stone — you were there! — and that gets you Glory.

But the Glory you get comes at the price of being extreme in behavior. We know people who are extreme in behavior, and better or worse, we remember them. These are the kinds of characters Greg Stafford modeled in his rules for the game. Significantly, it means that sometimes the Players are along for the ride with the Player Knights. The enemy of the Player Knight’s family walks into Arthur’s Court, and the GM asks for a Vengeful or Reckless Roll (if the Player Knight’s Traits are high enough to demand a roll), and the Player Knight might very well end up walking right up that family enemy and lobbing the man’s head off — right in Arthur’s court! That’s a terrible breach of conduct, as Arthur (like any lord) promises safety to anyone in his court.

So now the Player has a Player Knight who has done this thing! Now what? Arthur might banish the knight. (This happened to several knights in Le Morte D’Arthur for exactly this kind of behavior!) Or the Player Knight might flee! Or the decapitated man’s family might start a blood feud that rages and distracts the kingdom from the threat of the Saxons! Or the Player might have the knight drop to his knees before Arthur and say, “Assign me any punishment for what I have done!” or “Assign me any task to make up for what I have done!” Or the Player might have his Player Knight deliver himself to the hands of his enemies to avoid a blood feud and spare his family. Who knows? The point is that the Player sometimes rides the behavior of the knight like someone riding a wild horse and sees where he ends up. And from there a new set of story elements and problems are derived and we see where we go next.

That’s what I mean that Pendragon demands that the Player is both witness and participant to the ritual telling of the tales of these Arthurian knights they’ve created, both audience and story-telling shaman to the tale. The games’ world and events impress themselves into the Player’s experience directly — even the Players’ character, which is usually sacrosanct and off limits in most games.

Of course, if the Player makes choices that go against his Famous Traits, the value of that Trait will start to drop as the Referee sees fit.

There is another significant aspect to the Traits. By getting high values in a specific collection of traits one can get bonuses for the Player Knight. A specific collection of Traits will get a Player Knight a Chivalry bonus; another collection will get the Knight a Christian Religion Bonus; another will get a Pagan Religion Bonus. Not only do knights who live by these Chivalrous Virtues or Religious Virtues gain an annual Glory bonus, but they get mechanical rewards as well: Chivalric Knights get a constant +3 Armor for example; knights living in accordance with Pagan virtues get a healing rate bonus.

But, significantly, it is hard to be both a Chivalric Knight and a Religious Knight. There are too many Traits to increase keep at a high value; it’s hard to have so many Traits demanding action all the time. It can be done! But it’s hard! And this is one of the games many tension points between duty to laws of the land and laws of god or gods. (You will find this same tension throughout Glorantha (Stafford’s amazing RPG setting) and in the rules of HeroQuest.)

This, to me, is an amazing payoff for the Traits rules. You can go for a bonus, but which one? And how will that choice intersect with your Knight in daily and dramatic decisions as he strives to live by ideals when ideals sometimes get in the way of survival, loyalty, love and other ideals?

Please note that all of this ties to what others have called, “The game plays you” mode. That is, people don’t like that fact that they can’t just decide what their Knight does if he has a Trait of a Famous value and is in a moment of tested crisis.

While some people might respond to the mechanics this way, that isn’t my experience of the mechanic. The way I see playing Pendragon as Player is that you are riding the PC the same way one might “ride a tiger.”

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.”

When you have a Player Knight in Pendragon, you can guide him to a degree, but the random rolls of the d20 will lead you to choices and decisions you might not otherwise make. You are responsible to flowing into the character in a way most RPGs don’t expect you to flow, as he leads you on the story you discover by playing a character of such strong characteristics and passions.

That is what Stafford wanted to offer to players at the table. Again, this is either appealing or it is not to different people. But it is doing exactly what it was designed to do, with each gear fitting into the next along the way.

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