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 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.