King Arthur Pendragon Designer’s Notes


Each version of the 5th edition of King Arthur Pendragon includes a set of of Designer’s Notes from Greg Stafford about how he built the game.

They give a clear roadmap for how Stafford went about designing the game, using the rules and mechanics to help bring the players and the Game Master into the world of the text and the setting, and guide the gameplay in specific ways.

As I’ve been thinking a great deal about Stafford and his work this past week, I’ve decided to post them here. They show the care and diligence Stafford took with his work, as well as his desire to share his passion for Arthurian tales and mythical spirit with as many people as possible.

I think they are well worth reading not only to get a handle on what Stafford was up to in  King Arthur Pendragon, but as an example of a certain kind of approach to RPG design.

Designer’s Notes

Tabletop gaming is always a bringing together of things: of players, of pleasure and anxiety, of fun and boredom. For me, making King Arthur Pendragon was an exercise in this bringing together. 

Primarily, I was bringing together two things: the feeling of Arthurian legend and lore, and the mechanics of the game. I wanted King Arthur Pendragon to be such a device that the feeling was inseparable from the mechanics, so I endeavored to pour the utmost of my feelings and the perfection of my best mechanical logic into one form. 

I feel that I succeeded, which is why I like the game so much. Here we find the volatile combination of passion and logic, of ideals and practicality, of individual and family, of planning and chance, of life and death — all played out by the combination of player and character. In the past, I have designed or co-designed seven published roleplaying games, (RuneQuest, Adventurer’s Handbook, King Arthur Pendragon, Prince Valiant, Ghostbusters, HeroQuest, Thieves’ World), five published board games (Dragon Pass, Nomad Gods, Elric, King Arthur’s Knights, Merlin), and one computer game (King of Dragon Pass), as well as innumerable supplements, adventures, and scenarios, and without a doubt Pendragon is my favorite. I consider it my masterpiece. 

The short and simple answer as to why I feel this way is that King Arthur Pendragon is a concise, elegant system that presents the desired effects in an entertaining, playable manner that delights both novices and scholars. I take pride in my work, and am very proud of this game. 

The long answer is more complex. 

It begins with my curiosity about the Middle Ages and my love for the King Arthur mythos. My curiosity began when I was about eight or so. I was looking through a big picture book that included photos of castles, and I clearly remember wondering why they had such tall walls and no roofs. Some time later I learned they were ruins, of course, inciting another passion of mine for exploring these lonely remnants. 

I first learned about King Arthur in a copy of Bullfinch’s Mythology when I was very young. I saw some Howard Pyle books shortly thereafter, and began reading every piece of medieval fiction I could get my hands on. I got my first copy of Le Morte D’Arthur when I was 14 and was astonished and delighted to learn there were stories about knights from before he was king, that Lancelot was not the only knight, and that there were many, many more books on the subject. 

I began my first game company, Chaosium, in 1974, and a part of me always wanted to do a King Arthur game. My first was a board game, King Arthur’s Knights, in 1978, but that was unsatisfactory. I was well published in roleplaying games when I finally decided to undertake presenting King Arthur. 

I like Pendragon, too, because the work is all mine. In general, all of the other roleplaying games I have published have been works of committee. For Pendragon, though, I worked alone. I spent approximately 20 hours a week for a year designing and writing the core rules, and about the same time collecting and writing the background information. Ken St. Andre did give me a key to the resolution system to do away with the Resistance Table, but most of the rest was my own work. So, of course, I take pride in it. 

I began with Basic Roleplaying as the basis, thinking we would publish another game in the genera/game system that had already spawned RuneQuest, Elric, and Call of Cthulhu, and that had or would include other less known games (ElfQuest, Nephilim, Superworld, Worlds of Wonder). But after a while I realized that I would have to expand that basic system because of the subject matter, and I wanted the game to be about more than playing a single hero and his goals. So, with its traits and passions, battles and families, the game graduated from the BRP system. 

I decided early, too, that I would narrow the focus to be only about knights. I would not try to mimic the popular conception of fantasy that threw every possible player type into a big messy pool of options. I wanted to stick to the standards of literature, and did not cater to commoners, thieves, scribes, or even magicians. (Later, under pressure from Gamemasters who wanted a portrayal of Arthurian magic, I did publish a magic system for the game, and this naturally led to addressing the issue for player characters who wanted to be magicians. But I always felt this was a dilution of the essential game, and almost everyone who has commented says it is no fun to be a magic user in King Arthur Pendragon. That is fine by me.) 

By focusing on knights, I realized early on that Glory acquisition would be the key to the game. It was a reasonable coin with which to measure the value of a knight’s life, both in the literary and the real worlds. So I made a list of things that knights do, and began fiddling with the relative values. With that “game coin” as the focus, I began working out how to collect it.

But if it was all about knights, then I needed to differentiate them. The system needed to quantify behavior, because I wanted it to be able to include patterns of conduct as different as William Marshall and Gilles de Rais. Playtesting resolved the system for me. 

This led to a proliferation of types. That is, everyone would have to be a fighting type, since that is the job of all knights. But chivalric behavior, romantic manners, and religious leanings were different. I eventually included character generation for people form every nation that produced original Arthurian stories and different religions as well (not in this 5th edition of the core rules, but available in the Book of Lords & Ladies sourcebook). 

Thus, I had the literary structure and idealistic frame for the game. But that alone is not enough. I love the setting of medieval reality and its brutal, gritty realism, the struggle between life and death. Though many games are tilted towards player-character ease, I feel that making it too easy dilutes the emotional impact of play. I wanted players to feel as worried about their characters as the characters themselves would. Since the perfection of Arthurian ideals is offset by this danger, I wanted to make a game that walked the fine line between lethal reality and the idealism of a visionary life dedicated to the highest ideals and values. This theme is the key to the Arthurian legends. 

I didn’t want to water down the knight’s life of death and danger. I wanted players to know the danger, to have a reason for their knight to turn and run away once in a while. The sweetness and lightness of so many previous fantasy games, which either were not lethal or had a hundred methods of resurrection and healing, is alien to the body of Arthurian lore. The original stories were entertainment for men who knew the realities of combat, and I felt that to water that down betrayed the literature. 

Every Pendragon character is going to die, either from violence or old age. 

But these people also lived in a world of ideals and hope that offered to lift them from the filth and dirt of their lives. Much of this came from spiritual ideals, an unreachable goal. Yet, these ideas of chivalry and noblesse oblige — and of romance and love — were real, and some people strove to obtain them. The legends of idealized knights striving for the unobtainable ideals would not have been so popular had they not moved those grizzled, ignorant old men, and so I felt they were critical to the game. I wanted it to mirror the concerns of that period. I did not want the simple, shallow reality of killing things without repercussions, without a concern for the larger world people live within. 

So that essential tension in Arthurian literature — ideals versus reality — had to be the basis for the game. 

But since literature and medieval life were the sources for the setting, the game required me to address many subjects that had never been dealt with before. As a result, Pendragon was the first roleplaying game that used the game system itself to address personal behavior, relationships, the passage of time and the generation of families, and Christianity. 

Personal behavior was the key to all of this. In my years of gaming, I have always been irritated by characters who acted one way until a certain moment, when they would suddenly change. A key example would be those characters who were absolute lushes until the fairy queen put a flagon of wine before them, when they were suddenly teetotalers. I never denied the chance of a drunk doing this, but the incongruity of such reversals betrayed the essence of roleplaying a consistent character. 

So I invented the personality Traits. I had played with this idea previously, but this time it was a playable system because of the opposed Traits. The mechanic of Directed Traits came later when, during one campaign, a player developed a deep distrust only for Romans. 

And then Passions. Everyone in the literature is passionate. King Arthur weeps for the death of his friends, for the departure of the knights upon the Grail Quest; at other times he falls to the floor because he is laughing so hard. Guenever is enraged upon discovering Lancelot’s inadvertent infidelity, and he goes stark raving mad under her scorn. Gaheris kills his mother because he thinks she is untrue to his father, Isoud dies of sorrow because she thinks Tristram is dead. I wanted the game to mirror these things, so I set it to give Glory for high Passions — and at the same time, for players to risk losing control of their characters with this Passion. 

I had to grapple also with the passage of time. Arthur’s story starts with his birth, or perhaps even before that, and it ends with his death. The literature has the youth of Gawaine and his son’s early adventures. So I determined to make time move forward, and, in a desire to make the entire campaign playable, I insisted on the scheme of one significant adventure per game year. To ensure a desire and willingness to do this, I installed the Winter Phase, to allow characters to do that most amazing and wonderful thing of roleplaying games — to grow and change. 

In my years of gaming, I had noticed the fact of “game inflation.” That is, even a stingy Gamemaster who gives only one magical sword and one magical horse and one magical shield will find that these never disappear. The characters always keep them and get stronger. And, of course, give one person a set of armor that is 2 points better than everyone else’s, and soon everyone is clamoring — or worse, whining — for one. 

I wanted players to build into their characters this natural inclination of increasing strength. It dovetailed perfectly with my desire to make the entire Arthurian saga coincide with the entire Middle Ages. Thus was born escalation, where the horses and the armor and the castles and all kinds of things all get better through the campaign, offering the players the chance to improve along with the story. And, of course, the villains improve as well. 

And families. Families in Arthurian literature are incredibly important, and the creation of heirs critical to the genera. After all, it is that precise failure that brings the Round Table to ruin. And since I had already decided that time would pass, and thus people would (if they were lucky) slowly age, the introduction of families was natural. The function of Romance would take on meaning in the game as well, as knights sought wives, and we could play with the concept of simply marrying for wealth and lands instead of love, if players wished. 

Finally, Christianity was pretty much a taboo subject before Pendragon. People were leery of trying to portray the “living religion” of a large part of their customer base. But King Arthur would be impossible or false without it. The virtues worked in there perfectly. I decided, too, to introduce paganism. After all, much Arthurian legend and most British folklore are based on pre-Christian religion and beliefs, so it was natural to use. The invading Saxons were a different flavor of paganism. Thus, I added the alternate religions (not all of which are part of this 5th edition book, but available in supplements such as the Book of Knights and Ladies). 

Mostly, the game mechanics please me. I have devised a heads/tails system, the multiple dice Ghostbusters system (later used in a Star Wars game), and helped develop several games using the Basic Roleplaying d100 system. But this one, the Pendragon system, is my favorite. 

The game covers combat, personal behavior, relationships, the passage of time, and the generation of families, all within one system. I spent countless hours working out the exact values for the people and creatures. I wanted to be sure that the monsters were compatible with the scale of the people. I tested it time and again to make sure that the Troit Boar, for instance, could not be killed by a normal human, that the Saxons would be formidable and scary fighters, and that the game’s early armor did not stop all blows from normal fighting men, but that the later armor nearly did so. I have never been dissatisfied with the final stats. 

Thus, to me, the combination of mechanics and the Arthurian setting came together. 

I enjoyed the challenge of joining the imaginary places of legend into the fabric of British geography, combined with the historical 6th-century facts. I used Phyllis Ann Karr’s book, The Arthurian Companion, as a starting point. But I’d disagreed with a few placements based on my own reading. There were many decisions that were simply arbitrary, but most of them had reasons. I also searched out maps of 6th-Century Britain for the roads and settlements, and even used maps of that old coastline, which do not match those of today. It was a heady and satisfying effort. 

Finally, the background took shape. King Arthur derives, ultimately, from British legend. I scoured my library of folklore and legend for all the places and things that might work with the medieval legend. I never used any ghost story or weird event that occurred beyond medieval history, but put in every place of faeries, every healing well I found, and the sites of ghosts, monsters, and faeries. 

So it was that Pendragon became my most satisfying work. It brought together my professional game design career with my personal delight in the literature, my historical interests with the folklore interests, my pleasure at artistic creativity with its agony. 

And it has brought us together, the players, Gamemasters, and designers. I invite you to enjoy it yourself, and hope the combination gives you pleasure as it has me. 

— Greg Stafford 

8 thoughts on “King Arthur Pendragon Designer’s Notes

  1. Appreciate you sharing this, Chris. Always enjoy your blog posts.

    I remember seeing Pendragon back in the day but never purchased it. Where’s a good place to start for someone interested in the system? That is, which edition, which book, etc?

    Thank you!


  2. One of the great pleasures in life is playing a magician in Pendragon 4e. The system is a work of art IMO. I never understood Stafford’s unhappiness with it, although I suppose if he saw the game as “A game about knights” then there’s a logic to it. But if I was to pick one thing from Stafford’s life to show how good a game designer he was, it would be the Pendragon magic system (second place is a very hotly contended question – maybe everything else?).

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