Thursday, July 24, 2008

Pendragon: The holy grail of RPGs remains beyond my grasp

Question: What is the secret of the Grail? Whom does it serve?

Answer: Greg Stafford's Pendragon.

My experience with role-playing games is probably the same as that of your average gaming joe: 95% of my total hours in the hobby consist of playing D&D in all its various incarnations. The other 5% includes a smattering of Runequest, Top Secret, Star Frontiers, and Call of Cthulhu, along with a few one-shots here and there.

Now, I'm not complaining about this imbalance. D&D has served me well over the years as my go-to game of choice, and will likely continue to remain in that role going forward. But that doesn't mean that, from time to time, I don't ponder the alternatives. There is no one-size fits all RPG, D&D included.

Specifically, the one game that I have on my shelf but continues to elude me is the incomparable Pendragon, written by Greg Stafford. With all due respect to other great past and present RPG manuals, Pendragon is arguably the greatest read of them all, at least in my experience. To behold this game in all its glory is to see the art of role-playing at its pinnacle of development. It is, in my humble opinion, the Holy Grail of gaming.

Someday I hope to do more than read Pendragon and actually get to play it or run a game. But for now it remains as elusive as the Questing Beast, and my prospects for playing are as bleak as the Waste Land.

But I have often thought that, in the hereafter of our lives, when I owe no more to the future and can be just a man, that Pendragon and I may meet. It is a dream I have...

But enough Arthurian references. Beyond my hopes of one day playing this great game, below I've laid out reasons why I think Pendragon has remained both an obscure, yet simultaneously long-lasting (currently in its 5th edition) and remarkable RPG.

Reasons Pendragon is not popular

Note that I don't necessarily consider any of the following list to be drawbacks, merely speculation as to why Pendragon never truly took off as a popular RPG:

It's not D&D. This is the big one. The RPG "industry" serves a niche hobby, and D&D/Wizards of the Coast is the 800-pound gorilla in the room. There's not a lot of room for other games--trying to find D&D players can be challenging enough, but locating groups willing to try out other, obscure RPGs like Pendragon? It's the modern-day equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.

You're "stuck" playing knights. In my opinion this is actually a feature, not a bug. Pendragon's rules are built around knights--their training and upbringing, their chivalric traits and characteristics, their pasttimes (hunting, falconing, attending tournaments, etc.), running their manor, and more. In fact, in the latest edition of Pendragon, unlike past editions, you are limited to playing a knight only. This knight-only focus may preclude a breadth of options, but the depth of experience is remarkable. Unfortunately, players who want to play wizards, clerics, or Conan-like barbarians are out of luck.

It's deadly. The combat mechanics of Pendragon are not conducive to "rinse and repeat combats" like those found in D&D. Hit points are a fixed characteristic, and if you suffer a major wound you're in trouble: You can only fight on with great difficult, and likely it will be end of the combat and perhaps the adventure. You may even experience permanent negative effects from the wound, including statistical loss. I can understand why this isn't everyone's cup of tea.

It's not "high fantasy." While the Arthurian myths share a lot in common with high fantasy, they also diverge sharply from its most traditional "Tolkienian" conventions. So does Pendragon. You won't find magic swords and scrolls lying about in Pendragon games, unless they are rare and wondrous artifacts. Monsters are very rare (and suitably monstrous--you don't want to tangle with a giant). Magic is mysterious and extremely unpredictable--so unpredictable, in fact, that the GM basically "makes up" what happens. It's also the exclusive province of NPCs.

More to the point, the Arthurian myths don't always draw clear high fantasy divisions between good and evil. There are no cruel fantasy races (i.e., orcs) that can be slaughtered without compunction (although wicked mantichores, dragons, and giants do make the occasional appearance). And "evil" is hard to pin down: Is Launcelot and Guinevere's betrayal "evil," or simply an understandable failing of their human nature? Even Mordred can be seen in a sympathetic light.

Death is inevitable. If your character doesn't die on the battlefield, old age will ultimately claim him. A cool feature of Pendragon is that each "adventure" is assumed to take a year, as PCs have to return to their castle to tend to lands and business and enter a period of rest, recouperation, and character growth called the Winter Phase. Aging is a part of the game, so if you're not prepared for character death, you had best look elsewhere than Pendragon.

Reasons Pendragon has lasted, and should be more popular

The above "drawbacks" aside, Pendragon's brilliance is undeniable, and below I've listed a few of the reasons why:

It's brilliantly researched. Greg Stafford is steeped in Arthurian myth and it shines through in Pendragon. He built the game to simulate the acts and deeds and tales described by Malory and T.H. White and Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chretien de Troyes, and in my opinion succeeded.

It has a singular, sharply-defined focus. Related to point #1 above, Pendragon is not an amalgamation of Tolkien and Howard and Lieber and Moorcock. It is about Arthuriana. You know exactly what you're getting and the mechanics and rules are built to serve that purpose. Generic fantasy games, with their kitchen sink approach, may have more breadth and options than Pendragon, but that approach has its drawbacks, too. For example, in D&D each player brings with him or her a different expectation of the campaign world and style of play. Also, it isn't the best game for accurately depicting actual heroes from fantasy (what is Gandalf, exactly: A fighter? A wizard? A paladin, perhaps)? You don't have this problem with Pendragon: It allows you to create heroic, passionate knights, and is damned good at it.

It possesses a great game engine. Pendragon is built with the nuts and bolts of basic role playing (BRP), a "D100" percentile system designed by Stafford and fellow game designer Lynn Willis. BRP was originally used for popular and well-designed game systems Runequest and Call of Cthulhu. Pendragon adds to the BRP engine traits and passions, which inspire and support role-playing through mechanics.

It has potential for epic, generation-spanning campaigns. There are some great scenarios published for Pendragon which can be played rather like a D&D module for an evening or two of entertainment. But the game is truly meant to be enjoyed as a decades and even centuries-spanning mega campaign. Characters are born, become squires and knights, fight and die or die of old age, and give birth to the next generation. The Great Pendragon campaign (a Pendragon mega-supplement whose cover I've pictured here) spans 81 years, including the rise and fall of Camelot/King Arthur, great wars and invasions, and mighty quests. Weapons and armor evolve over time from simple chain mail and spears and swords to halberds, morning stars, and gothic plate. Although it's an overused term, Pendragon campaigns are truly epic in scope.

Its inspired by amazing source material. Others around the Web have recently noted that the older editions of D&D succeeded in large part because of the flavor and character they picked up from the fantasy fiction roots upon which they are based. I can't argue with that, but I also note that no game can rival the rich tradition of literature that serves as the foundation for Pendragon.
Although the number of fantasy fans who have read Tolkien or Howard, or Leiber or Dragonlance, likely far outnumber those who have read Malory or T.H. White, everyone knows at least the basics of the Arthurian myth. The legends are timeless. Pendragon is drawn from the tales of Camelot, the shining kingdom illuminating dark ages Britain and the wild Forest Sauvage; the sword Excalibur, drawn from the stone; Stonehenge and druidism; evil knights and bandits that need to be quelled; tournaments and fair maiden's hearts and favors to be won; mythical quests for rare artifacts to undertake; invading armies to be fought; kingdoms to carve out and win, and, eventually, to fall into ruin. This is the stirring stuff of Pendragon.

In summary, take up the quest that is Pendragon. I'll be waiting.


James Maliszewski said...

Pendragon is one of my favorite of all RPGs. It's not old school in almost any sense, but it's a hell of a lot of fun. Some of my best gaming moments ever have occurred while playing this game. It is quite simply one of the best RPGs ever written.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi James, I envy you for having played Pendragon.

Just a suggestion for a future post or posts, but I'd enjoy reading about your experiences with other RPGs than D&D over at Grognardia.

Anonymous said...

Pendragon is my 'Desert Island' game. In over 25 years of gaming I've found no other game that lights my fire in the way that Pendragon does. I've had the good fortune to run a lot of games, both one-shots and longer campaigns, with a series of great players. One of my fondest memories of Pendragon is of running a game in a converted watermill, near Tintagel. Magic was definitely in the air that evening.

Terry L said...

I always wanted to play this game. I remember leafing through the 'Boy King' supplement from some years ago and just wishing I could get a game started.

Andrew said...

What a wonderful review Brian. Like you, Pendragon seems to me to be the pinnacle of RPGs. And, like you, I have never actually played it!

My best RPG days were at boarding school then at university. Perhaps, when we get to the age when we can appreciate Pendragon's sophisticated mechanics, we no longer have the time (and our friends no longer have the time) to indulge ourselves.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for stopping by, Andrew. It is one of those sad ironies of RPGs that the more disposable income you have to purchase games, and the more you come to appreciate the finer pleasures of the hobby, the less time you have to actually play.

BenTheFerg said...

Agreed on that last point Brian!!

I am currently running Pendragon - as in the GPK - due in part for this exact reason - a lot of us in my gaming circle in Brighton (UK) are married, have kids, or, as with me, very busy with work-life balance stuff. Pendragon is a game, unlike 4e D&D (or 3.5 etc) that you can run with 2, 3 or 6 knights - no need to worry about 'balance'.

Thus it really suits us - is so much more flexible than any other game. 4e requires party balance. Cthulhu requires regular attendance for plot development/ pc understanding. Pendragon is more self-contained.

We have only played out years 485-491 in 4 sessions so far, plus a whole day doing a backstory in 4D when they were kids. Its going really well! I recommend it! You can buy the GPK as a pdf - which I think is far easier - print off what you need!!

Happy blogging!


Brian said...

Good Stuff! Pendragon is a game I've also owned for many a year, but I still have never actually gotten a game going. I'm still not entirely sure why that is. I accept your explanations, but would also add one: "Fear of ignorance".

I believe that many players feel that their lack of knowledge about the characters and pseudo-historical setting puts them off. Perhaps they feel like they'll be at a disadvantage not knowing what drives famous characters like Sir Tristram. Perhaps they think they'll be mocked for not knowing the rules of chivalry, honor, and hospitality. Or, perhaps they feel that the story is pretty much already scripted out to follow the literature, and thus their own effect on Britain will be negligible.

In any case, it's a huge shame that so few people are interested in this gem of an RPG. One bright day, I swear I'll run a campaign! Thanks for your blog post!

Brian Murphy said...

Brian: Thanks for posting. Good observation--intimidation caused by an unfamilarity with the source material may be another reason why people have shied away from Pendragon. But when it comes down to it, it's just a game. And if you ever get yours going, please post about it here or drop me an e-mail.

Ben: Sorry for not seeing your post earlier, I must have missed it. I'd love to hear about your campaign details. I really am fascinated with this game.

BenTheFerg said...

Hi - Ben here.

well - we are playing one year per session. Following the GPC, but not 100% (as in players have some ability to impact/ change minor details, to reward them for good roleplaying).

Armed with the Book of Manors, we have been having fun with the estate management side of things (I thought initially that the fact 2 of the guys work in finance would mean that relaxing would mean this would not be high on their agenda - but they are the 'worst', as in very keen on feudal expansion!)

The GPC is a great spine onto which you can run anything. all you have to do is weave some believable npcs into the action, create some tensions within the local nobility (I foreshadowed one rift by doing the initial game with the pcs as 11 year olds, as well as developing rivalries into hostilities through small encounters as adults... with mercenary Saxons being used by British nobles to grab more land, it is a time of tension, backstabbing, murder and other great passion play devices. Ham it up!

The guys are loving it. Last game was AD494 - where the players failed to stop a south wales king, King Canan of Estregales, being assassinated. In the text he was meant to die - but the pcs were so good in their interactions, and investigation of his death, they solved the mystery of the killer's identity, and managed to get the king's son onto the throne and keep the alliance of warlords together, so they will still march to Uther's aid. (Unofficial outcome) It was a great session, and the guys felt like they were really changing history. Feel-good factor 10/10.

We play out AD495 Sat evening. This could involve a TPK depending on pc actions. It's the end of Uther's reign.

Once the Anarchy period opens up, the plot can really widen too - with players going questing in Scandinavia, land grabbing in Ireland, etc.... Am looking forward to a change in narrative structure.

Pendragon is great played out of the can. Greg has done so much work with it, the GPC is a fantastic resource. With the other older sourcebooks on pdf, you have tons of flavour text materials and npcs and plot hooks to bring the game to life.

The manors part can be done via email. even some adventures possibly can be - by copying and pasting material from the GPC pdf into an email - yes -probably illegal - but it works!

Really glad I bit the bullet and we are playing the game. A pc nearly got gored to death by a wild boar the other session too. This would never happen in 4e. Neither would their concern for their horses, or their heirs, land, etc. Quite a different beast. Well done Greg for bringing this game to life and nurturing it for so long. Looking forward to the Book of Battles!


Brian Murphy said...

Ben, that is awesome, thanks for sharing. PCs as 11-year-olds is a great idea, but I'm curious how you pulled the session off. What challenges can characters that age be expected to face?

Sounds like a great campaign, similar one I still hope to someday run.

Carpe Guitarrem said...

I'm right with you on this stuff. EPIC read, and I want to play it incredibly so. (I dug this post up from a Google search, and it completely captures how I feel about Pendragon, more or less.)

*links over at my blog*

Anonymous said...

Agree with all comments above. Am running Pendragon for the third time, this time the full GPC. We've gone from 485 AD to 510 AD -- yes, they've actually made it out of the Long Dark.

All original characters are dead (some players have gone through three or more main characters), but some of the children are about to come of age (other children died before reaching maturity). Several major NPC's have been knocked off by the PC's (Brastias, Prince Mark, four Saxon kings or princes, and other mid-level NPC's). One PC even took a hit from Excalibur wielded by a British King, and survived, only to die years later at the hands of lowly Saxon Ceorl.

They have fought the Franks, Saxons, and Irish, traveled far north of the Wall, raided coastal ports, seized ships, sieged castles, spent years in Wizard dungeons, repelled raiders, lost their Liege Lord's city, saved London, doomed London to pillage, and were first into the breech years later to reclaim the city, aided Merlin and cursed him, and just recently bowed to a Boy Who Would Be King.

In short, if the GM is willing to allow unlimited options on the part of the players, the game will support it. Yes there is a pre-history, but it possesses a lot of intertia. The history will respond to the pressure of the players, but it is not easily broken.

Claudio said...

Hey, Brian, you made a very nice post! Congrats!

I've been reading/talking about KAP for some time and every opportunity those who have played it show some great respect, admiration and true love for the game.

I´m starting my first KAP game as a player but I'm already looking forward to DM it, because every single line you read in the books, gives you more and more ideas of quests.

Honestly, I consider myself not a RPG player, but a D&D player but I believe that very soon the Dungeons and Dragons will be put aside while I'll consider a real threat those bastards attacking the English shore!

Once again, thank you for your wonderful post!

PS: Sorry if anything is written wrong, but English is not my native language! :)

Fábio Romeiro Gullo said...

Hello everybody!

My name os Fábio, I'm from Brazil and so glad to discover, here, that actualy a lot of galera out there play and hold Pendragon dear in their hearts and high in steem. I myself have always considered it The greatest RPG ever, and have enjoyed running it for over a decade now. The stories I'be been tolding with it are so much more literary, deph and sophisticated... I really Love The game and and one day hope I can tjank Greg Stafford for have created such a Master piece. And sorry for The bad english ;-)

dracopticon said...

Hello! My name is Erik Brickman and I'm from Sweden. I have NOT read through all the other replies. But: I can give you one advice. Try to get hold of the first edition of King Arthur Pendragon and stick with that a while. It's very much more simple and direct. Nowadays the KAP game tends to be too elaborated. I own almost all the supplements and rulebooks, and the most fun I've ever had is with the 1st ed.