KING ARTHUR PENDRAGON: The Player Knights and the Epic Story


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.



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.