King Arthur Pendragon Designer’s Notes

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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 260 

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. 

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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 

 

 

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King Arthur Pendragon 1st Edition–Currently Free on DriveThruRPG

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As I’ve noted elsewhere King Arthur Pendragon is one of my favorite roleplaying games ever. I first encountered it in the 3rd edition and was blown away by the mechanics, the layout, and Lisa Free’s gorgeous art.

James Maliszewski wrote a lovely tribute to the 1st edition back in 2010. And lo and behold, DriveThruRPG currently has a PDF of the 1st edition available for FREE until January 31st, 2017. All the contents of the original game are included in a single PDF.

While the editions haven’t changed that much over the years (apart from the 4th edition which added magic and expanded the “classes” of characters from knights to many other folks) I’m curious to see how the original version of the game reads.

Below is the copy from the DriveThruRPG page:


Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain.

Relive the glory of King Arthur’s court. Uphold the chivalric ideals of fair play, courage, honesty, and justice as your caliant knight-character undertakes perilous quests and risks monstrous dangers in legendary Britain. He’ll smite bloodthirsty giants and crush treacherous invaders for King Arthur and his own glory.

To play the Pendragon roleplaying game, you create and take on the role of squite, knight, or noble of the realm. Armed and armored, you overcome life and death struggles, impossible frustration, and ruthless enemies to join the Fellowship of the Round Table

The gamemaster leads the other players in interpreting the Pendragon rules and is central in bringing the adventures to l ife. He commands the magic of Merlin and Morgan le Fay, the actions of King Arthut and Queen Guenever, and the schemes of Mordred and Agravaine.

Game Features:

Roleplaying – innovative game mechanics awaken passionate love, hate, and loyalty in your characters, leading them to acts of mercy, cruelty, lust, piety, valor, and cowardice.

Campaign Play – customs, manners, and weapons change during teh phases of Arthur’s long reign. Over these years your character-knight begets a family whose reputation depends on the glory he achieves. He passes his hard-won inheritance and grudges to his sons. Up to four generations of knights will live and die during Arthur’s reign.

Game System – Easily remembered, simple-to-play mechanics feature a single die roll to determine combat, to settle personality encounters, and to resolve skill use.

Character Generation – create a squire, knight, noble, or fair damsel, of Roman Saxon, Cymric, Pictish, or Irish heritage. Select between the Christian, Wotonic, or pagan religions.

Background – Includes a 22″ by 30″ map of Britain complete with kingdoms, cities, castles, keeps, forests, Roman roads, abbeys, rivers, mountains, fortified walls, and battle sites. A bestiary of natural and mythical creatures includes avancs, barguests, dwarfs, elves, giants, kelpies, spriggans, unicorns, yales, and the Questing Beast among many others. You are provided character statistics for major personalities such as Arthur, Guenever, and Lancelot. Also enclosed are lesser-knowns such as Balin le Sauvage, Breuse sans Pitie, Saint Cadoc, King Mark, Nimue, Percivale and Ulfius. A chronology includes wars, adventures, customs, campaigh escalation, and characters of note. An extensive bibliography provides further sources of information, all to support campaign play.

The Game of Quest, Romance & Adventure

A Lovely Overview of King Arthur Pendragon

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Although I’m not playing it right now, Greg Stafford’s King Arthur Pendragon is on of my favorite RPGs ever.

Over at Refereeing and Reflection, a post just went up giving a terrific overview of the game by someone who played through a solid chunk of The Great Pendragon Campaign.

If you’re not familiar with the game, but curious about it, you might want give the overview a shot. It describes not just the mechanics, but the overview of session and campaign play.

Passions in King Arthur Pendragon

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The Passions are an extension of the idea of big feelings, big actions. These are characters who MUST take action. When the chips are down (or when a player really wants to spike an action) he or she can invoke Passions for the Player Knight. Loyalty to Lord, Hatred of Saxons, Love of Wife — the whole range of Passions and passions directed at certain groups or specific people are possible. Not only do the Passion rules offer a specific mechanical benefit to Player Knight personalities, but I’ve found they really energize the Players when invoked. Invoking Passions really puts on the line “I really hate theses Saxons! I become almost superhuman when fighting them!” or “My love for my wife will make me ride all day and all knight for five days to return home and save her!” The rolls mark extremes — and again, superhuman — moments of behavior and action that lift the knights out of the mundane and into that realm that approaches Lancelot and Gawain in their deeds, making them worthy characters in a fresh cycle of tales for Arthurian Knights.

There are game mechanic limiters on Passions, just as there are for Traits. The GM and Players can make calls for Passions, making moments that say, “This matters!” and go for that mechanical advantage. If a Player Knight is very Passionate about something, and that object is at risk or a threat — or even present! — it means that the Player Knight might take strong action even if it’s not a very good idea.

Positive results mean anything from a +10 skill point bonus to the duration of the event at hand, to a doubling of the Player Knight’s skill for the duration of the event. Negative results on a Passion roll will mean a loss of a point for the Passion’s value and suffers a loss of skill value for the duration f the event and might even become maddened and flee. (The narrative context of the madness to be decided by the Players and GM: did he realize when tested his courage to protect his wife failed him? That despite his father’s teachings he couldn’t slay the son of their father’s family? And so on…)

This is all story stuff, these Traits and Passions, marking the Characters as creatures of their feelings and behaviors, not strategic choices and tactics. To fully mark these moments with description and narrative the Players must find within themselves the feelings and actions dictated by the roll of the dice. It is an invitation to feel and go toward places they often never expected to go!

This is the activity of the actor or the ritual participant acting out a part that is not them, but that moves them in new and cool ways, opening their experience in a subtle way. It’s reading a book, identifying with a character that is not you and not behaving by the choices you would make, but getting caught up in feelings or choices we often avoid in daily life (for good reason!) but experiencing them safely in the environment of play.

It’s Stafford’s view that by meeting up with these larger than life characters and behaviors we take away something very important from the myths we are interacting with. Certainly, in my experience, it’s provided a hell of a lot of fun!

The Use of Traits in King Arthur Pendragon

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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:

STANDARD TRAIT ROLL RESULTS
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.

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 Pendragon 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 Pendragon 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 Pendragon 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.

Introducing Folks to King Arthur Pendragon — One of my Favorite RPGS

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I’m part of a local Meetup established to play games the gang hasn’t played yet. Last time we met I offered to run King Arthur Pendragon. Everyone had such a good time they insisted I run another session.

I had planned to introduce the Battle System (from Book of Battles2nd. Edition). But a new player jumped in tonight, so I decided not to dump them into that.

So, instead, in 485 A.D., the Earl of Salisbury sent our new knights out on patrol for Saxons which might be making scouting incursions from the south. They found six, engaged them. (Note: Saxons are tough.)

I warned them about the dangers of Passions (despite the shiny bonuses if one succeeds at the roll.) Despite the warnings, by the time the fight was over, three of the four Knights had fallen into Melancholy. (The Saxons were tougher than any of the Knights expected, leading to terrible and haunting doubts about the impending assault rumored to be on its way.)

Despite the doubts, the Knights triumphed — though they sat despondent and broken on the fields near a forest where they cut down the Saxons. As night fell they saw strange lights glowing beyond the forest’s edge. Curious and afraid (of more Saxons) they made their way closer with guarded care. As they approached they heard strange and beautiful singing as the lights became floating colors both unearthly and appealing.

Three of the Knights stopped at the edge of the trees, afraid to go any further. The fourth made his way closer — seeing a Fairie feast in progress, where beautiful creatures wearing spider thread silks sang and danced. Six Saxon warriors stacked on spikes cut from sharpened tree branches stood at the feasts center.

A fairie child approached him, holding out a scone on her hand. He hesitated, drawn by the sweet’s appearance. But famed for his Temperance, he resisted, backing away.

The knights found shelter for the night. Finished their patrol of the county over the next week. Returned to Sarum to tell everyone of what befell them.

Glory was gained. Two of the Knights each found a bride. A child was born.

I walked them through the Winter Phase and the dynastic elements so they’d have a good idea of how the game works and how all the pieces work together.

As we were wearing up, one player looked over at another player’s character sheet asking, “How much Glory do you have?” So, yeah. They fell for it hard. It went down like gang busters.

GM Cheat Sheets for KING ARTHUR PENDRAGON

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King Arthur Pendragon is one of my favorite games. I’ll be GMing for a local gaming group later this week.

I never get to play it enough. Which means that when I do get to play it I have to review and relearn the game’s winding (but excellent!) rules.

To help me prep for this week’s game — and as a reference for future games — I’ve slapped together a kind of primer for the game to use during play. That is, it doesn’t have anything to do with character creation; it doesn’t cover what you do during The Winter Phase. It’s all about keeping the game moving while learning the rules.

It doesn’t list all tables (it’s only four pages long), but it has most of the info I would need to reference things on the fly. It’s primarily a teaching too. After a while, you wouldn’t have to use it. But it’ll keep you from having to dig through the books each time something comes up in play.

It works about one or two levels deep. That is, something happens (knight gets wounded), you can check the sheets for info. The info might direct you to one more step. You can most likely check that, too. But after that, you’ll be directed to something you’ll have to look at in the book. The idea is that once you’re that deep, until you get the game under your belt, you’ll be cracking open the book and reading through the details at the table during play anyway.

You’ll also note that all the Traits required for Religious & Chivalry bonuses are listed. That’s for me as the GM… to make sure to be on the look out to test Traits that most Knights will usually be angling to make Famous.