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Sunday, 6 October 2019

Review 1000: King Arthur Pendragon

Much like the return of Glorantha to Chaosium, Inc. with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, the return of King Arthur Pendragon felt like a long lost roleplaying game finally coming home. Originally published by Chaosium, Inc. in 1985, it was never really a case of King Arthur Pendragon of actually being lost, for other publishers, most recently Nocturnal Media, had published highly regarded editions of the classic, most recently King Arthur Pendragon 5.2, but the award-winning roleplaying game—including the 1991 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Rules for King Arthur Pendragon, Third Edition, and the 1987 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Adventure and the 2007 Diana Jones Award for Gaming Excellence for The Great Pendragon Campaign—was first published by Chaosium, and so feels at home with the publisher.

King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 would suggest that it is a relatively minor update to King Arthur Pendragon, Fifth Edith, but those changes are significant. Most obviously, in the new layout and full colour upgrade, which results in a stunningly clean looking book, but also in minor tweaks to the mechanics. Less obviously, but in hindsight, more importantly, in the addition of a set designer’s notes from the late Greg Stafford. These place King Arthur Pendragon in context and explain Stafford’s reasons for his design decisions, his love of Arthurian legend, and more. That they are his final words on what he clearly states he considers to be his masterpiece, is sad but fitting. So the question is, is King Arthur Pendragon Greg Stafford’s masterpiece? Instead of making you wait until the end of the review to answer that question, that question will be answered here and the review will instead be used to explain why.

Yes.

King Arthur Pendragon is Greg Stafford’s masterpiece and he was right to make such a claim.

King Arthur Pendragon is as the title suggests an Arthurian roleplaying game. Drawing from sources as diverse as the Welsh The Mabinogion, Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth century Le Morte D’Arthur, and T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, it presents a melange of the legends that compacts a thousand years of history and French and British culture into just eight decades. It begins in the ‘Dark Ages’ of the Fifth Century with native Britons holding off the Saxon invaders, sees the discovery and rise of King Arthur, inaugurating a golden age of chivalry, Christianity, and feudalism, and of honour, romance, and great quests, before the death of Arthur ushers a return of the Dark Ages with greater Saxon successes…

Players will explore this not through one character, but several, as their characters first try to protect Britain’s surviving kingdoms against the encroaching invaders, and then their characters’ sons will see the rise of Arthur, and their sons will aspire to become members of King Arthur’s Roundtable. This generational play is just the first of King Arthur Pendragon’s innovations. They will do this as one character type—the Knight. And even then only as one type of Knight—the British Cymric Knight. They may be British Christian Knights, Roman Christian Knights, or Pagan Knights, but they are British Knights. Each begins the game as a squire, before being knighted and serving Sir Roderick, Earl of Salisbury in the south of England. Now previous versions of the roleplaying game have allowed other character types, such as Pictish and Saxon Knights, even characters capable of casting magic, but King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 saves Knights from other lands for future supplements and magic for use by NPCs and as narrative devices and effects for the Game Master. This focus on a single character type is indicative of King Arthur Pendragon 5.2’s tight focus.

One issue with this character type is it is primarily a male one. As both historical and ahistorical as King Arthur Pendragon is with its feudal society, it should be no surprise that Knights are male, and that to be faithful to the history and the sources, the roles of women are limited in the roleplaying game. This does not mean that there are not important and influential women in the setting—notably Queen Guenever and Queen Morgan le Fay—but they do not necessarily ride into battle or go on quests. King Arthur Pendragon though, does not limit player choice and not only provides a list of historical examples who did, it also gives guidelines for creating female knights.

As a Knight each character is defined by Homeland, Culture, and Father’s Name, then Father’s Class, Son Number, Liege Lord, Current Class, Current Home, Age, and Year Born. All this before we even get to the numbers, which start with Traits and Passions—which define a Knight’s personality, then continue with Attributes—Size, Dexterity, Strength, Constitution, and Appearance—which are rated between three and twenty-one. Notably, there is no Intelligence attribute, that being left up to the player rather than the character. Skills are roughly divided into combat skills and ordinary skills. They range between one and twenty, but can go higher. Every Knight has Glory, a measure of his renown and his actions, the higher it is, the greater the chance of his being recognised.

Character generation is dedicated to creating such a Knight. Much of the background information is designed to support the set-up in Salisbury and is thus set in stone. The player has a choice in how he assigns points to his Knight’s attributes and skills, although the base skills are the same for all Knights. A Knight also has a coat of arms that a player is free to design and he also receives a Family Characteristic which all members of his family share. The last step in Knight generation is to develop his family history in and around Salisbury. This is a step-by-step process which charts the events in the lives of the Knight’s grandfather and father in the forty or so years before the player character Knight enters play. One thing thing a Knight inherits from his father is Glory, reflecting the renown his father achieved. Of course, the Knight will go on to greater Glory...

Our sample Knight is Sir Miles the Modest, a Christian Knight, whose outstanding Trait is his self-effacement and his ability to compose songs and poems. His grandfather fought with great distinction defending King Constans and he hopes to be as valorous.

Sir Miles the Modest
Homeland: Salisbury Culture: Cymric
Father’s Name: Melion Father’s Class: Vassal Knight Son Number: One
Liege Lord: Sir Roderick, Earl of Salisbury Current Class: Vassal Knight 
Current Home: Cholderton
Age: 21 Year Born: 464 AD

Glory: 1,196

ATTRIBUTES
Size 12
Dexterity 12
Strength 12
Constitution 15
Appearance 12

DERIVED ATTRIBUTES
Damage: 4d6
Healing Rate: 2
Movement Rate: 2
Total Hit Points: 27
Unconscious: 6

Distinctive Features: Green Eyes

FAMILY CHARACTERISTIC
Good with Words (+15 Compose)

PERSONALITY TRAITS
Chaste 10 | 10 Lustful
Energetic 10 | 10 Lazy
Forgiving 09 | 11 Vengeful
Generous 10 | 10 Selfish
Honest 10 | 10 Deceitful
Just 10 | 10 Arbitrary
Merciful 10 | 10 Cruel
Modest 16 | 04 Proud
Prudent 10 | 10 Reckless
Spiritual 10 | 10 Worldly
Temperate 10 | 10 Indulgent
Trusting 10 | 10 Suspicious
Valorous 16 | 04 Cowardly

PASSIONS
Loyalty (Lord) 15
Love (Family) 15
Hospitality 15
Honour 15
Hate (Saxons) 11
Hate (Picts) 11

SKILLS
Combat Skills: Battle 15, Horsemanship 10, Sword 15, Lance 10, Spear 6, Dagger 5
Awareness 10, Boating 1, Compose 25, Courtesy 10, Dancing 5, Faerie Lore 1, Falconry 5, First Aid 10, Flirting 3, Folk Lore 2, Gaming 3, Heraldry 3, Hunting 2, Intrigue 3, Orate 10, Play (Harp) 3, Read (Latin) 0, Recognise 5, Religion (Christianity) 2, Romance 7, Singing 5, Stewardship 2, Swimming 2, Tourney 2

EQUIPMENT
Chainmail and shield, two spears, sword, dagger, fine clothing (worth £1), gear (personal, travel, war), four horses (charger, two rouncys, sumpter), engraved silver ring (heirloom, worth £2)

HISTORY
Miles’ grandfather fought at the Battle of Carlion in 439 AD and served as a garrison knight for several years before dying trying to protect King Constans in 444 AD. Miles’ father, Melion, fought at the Siege of Carlion in 466 AD and then as a garrison knight for many years, withstanding many Saxon raids. He fought in the Battle of Salisbury in 480 AD and was present at the funeral of High King Aurelius Ambrosius and the election of Uther as the new Pendragon. He was killed at the Battle of Eburacum in 484 AD.

Mechanically, King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 is simple. A player rolls a twenty-sided die, the aim being to roll equal to under the skill, Trait, or Passion. Rolls of twenty are always a fumble, whilst rolls equal to the value of the skill are always critical rolls. Critical rolls grant an experience check. For example, when attempting a Recognise check for Sir Miles to see if he recognises a fellow knight by his coat of arms, results of one to four would be a success, but a result of a five would be a critical success. In opposed rolls, the participant who makes a successful roll, but rolls highest succeeds better than his opponent. For example, in a Gaming contest, Sir Miles’ player succeeds, but only rolls a two. His opponent, with a higher skill of 6, rolls a five and wins. If a Knight has a skill over twenty, then the value over twenty acts as a bonus to his player’s roll, with results over twenty counting as a critical success. For example, Sir Miles has a Compose skill of 25. This grants his player a +5 bonus to the roll, with any roll of 20 or more counting as a critical success. When it comes to making Experience Checks, a player simply has to roll over the value of the skill, Trait, or Passion to increase it, but for skills over twenty, a straight roll of twenty is required to improve it.
For example, Sir Miles wants to write a song dedicated to the widow of his liege lord, extolling the virtue of her loyalty to her late husband and duty to see to the care of his children. He believes that having lost his own wife, he should marry the lady and the song he believes is appropriate means of wooing her. His player rolls 17, scoring a critical success. Later on, when it comes to rolling the Experience Check for Sir Miles’ Compose skill, his player rolls only a 12 and so does not improve the skill.
Combat essentially uses the opposed roll mechanic. In a Melee Round, rolls are made for each combatant’s combat skill. If both combat skill rolls are successful, but the higher roll means that participant wins the exchange and inflict damage, whilst the defender can use his shield to defend himself. If the roll is failed for a combatant and his opponent’s roll is a success, then the defender cannot use his shield. Damage in general, is not done by weapon type—though some weapons, like a dagger, will reduce the number of dice rolled for damage—but by the damage rating of the Knight or NPC.

Typically, a player will be rolling four six-sided dice for damage for his Knight. If ready for a fight, a Knight will be wearing Chainmail which provides ten points of protection, and if his player rolls well enough, wielding a shield that provides another six. If not, even an average damage roll for a Knight will inflict damage and if a player makes a critical roll in combat, then the damage is doubled. What this means is that combat in King Arthur Pendragon has the potential to be incredibly deadly, the rules also allowing for knockdown, being knocked unconscious,  inflicting wounds, and breaking weapons.

After a Knight has suffered from damage or wounds, first aid can be applied in order to keep him from death’s door, but in the long term, a Knight will need the application of Chirurgery—an ‘non-knightly’ skill that no honourable Knight will know. Otherwise, there is rest and recuperation, but what there is not, magical healing, and what there is, is the chance of a wound deteriorating and should a Knight not rest, of aggravating it. What this highlights is that the life of the Knight might be glorious, it might be honourable, but it can also be nasty, brutal, and short. The time needed for healing should a wound be suffered is also one reason why adventuring opportunities are so limited in King Arthur Pendragon.

As simple as the mechanics are in King Arthur Pendragon, they are not what the roleplaying game is known for. That honour goes to its system of Traits and Passions. Traits represent a Knight’s personality, consisting of thirteen opposite pairs. So Chaste and Lustful, Honest and Deceitful, Valorous and Cowardly, and so on. Each Trait in a pair is assigned a value, the two values together adding up to no more than twenty. So, a Trusting of ten and Suspicious of ten, an Energetic of fourteen and Lazy of six, and so on. During a game, a player can look to the values of his Knight’s Traits to determine how he might act, but if unsure or wanting guidance, the player can roll against one of them, and the Game Master can also direct a player to roll against one to see how his Knight will act in a particular situation.
For example, Sir Miles is attending a feast at which his lord has an entourage of Saxon warriors as guests. During the evening, a Saxon knight, Cuthred, boasts of his prowess at the battle of Ebacurum against the less than worthy Christian knights. Good manners forbids the hosts rising to the bait, but Sir Miles’ father was killed in the battle and so he has a hatred of Saxons. Looking at Sir Miles’ personality Traits, he has a Vengeance of eleven and a Forgiving of nine. Sir Miles’ player could just say that the knight leaps to his feet and demands satisfaction or that Cuthred apologises, but instead decides that he will roll for it to determine what Sir Miles will do.
If Sir Miles’ player rolls against the Knight’s Vengeance of eleven, then Sir Miles will be angered to act against Cuthred, leading to an exchange of words, possibly a fight with Cuthred, and a rebuke from his lord. If though, that roll is failed, his player will roll against Sir Miles’ Forgiving of nine. Again, if Sir Miles’ player rolls under that, Sir Miles will not act vengefully, but demur, being prepared to forgive Cuthred for his boasts. No fight ensues and his lord might give Sir Miles an approving nod for his keeping his temper. Of course, if both rolls are failed, Sir Miles is free to act as his player decides. 
If the player successfully rolls against a Trait, then like skills, the Trait can be improved, even if that Trait is seen as a negative one. What this means is that the values of Traits can change over time, reflecting how a Knight’s personality can change when he is pushed to act one way or another. At the same time, a Knight should also be working to find opportunities to raise certain Traits. These are seen as virtuous Traits—for example, Chaste, Energetic, Generous, Modest, and Temperate for Sir Miles as a British Christian Knight—and if their combined is high enough, he will be renowned for his virtue and gain Glory for it. In this way, King Arthur Pendragon encourages a player to roleplay his Knight aspiring to be the best knight that he can.

The personality Traits in King Arthur Pendragon are an incredible piece of design, subtle and elegant, and doing so much more than you think. Obviously, they guide and direct a Knight’s behaviour and decisions, at dramatic moments deciding how a Knight will act and they push a player toward roleplaying an ideal, that is, an Energetic, Generous, Just, Merciful, Modest, and Valorous knight, the very model of Christian chivalry which lies at the heart of the genre that King Arthur Pendragon is all about emulating. Yet, they also serve as the equivalent of the game’s mental advantages and disadvantages, either hindering or benefiting a knight depending upon the situation. In the given example, Sir Miles’ Vengeance of eleven works as a slightly stronger disadvantage, whilst his Forgiving of nine is a weaker advantage. Given another situation, his Vengeance might be the advantage and his Forgiving the disadvantage. In other roleplaying games, such advantages and disadvantages are cut and dried absolutes, known quantities. In King Arthur Pendragon 5.2, they are not. They are flexible, they have the capacity to change over time, and so they reflect a character’s growth and change more readily and easily, with there being no possibility of a character simply and absolutely buying off a disadvantage, for personality Traits can just as easily swing back the other way.

In addition, a Knight’s Passions, like Loyalty (Lord), Love (Family), and Hate (Saxons) which represent strong emotional and psychological tendencies. When a player rolls against one of his Knight’s Passion, it can grant inspiration and a bonus for a task, but should it fail, it can leave the Knight disheartened and suffering a penalty to a task.
For example, at the feast where a Saxon knight, Cuthred, boasted of his prowess at the Battle of Ebacurum against the less than worthy Christian knights, Sir Miles’ player made a successful roll against Sir Miles’ Vengeance of eleven. Instead of striking at the uncouth Saxon, Sir Miles’ player decides that the Knight will rebuke Cuthred and speak vehemently of the British knights at that battle. This will be an Orate check, but Sir Miles’ player decides that he will invoke Sir Miles’ Passion of Hate (Saxons) of eleven. He is fortunate and rolls ten—a success. Sir Miles is inspired, gains +10 to his Orate skill for the one roll. Sir Miles’ player rolls twenty, which would normally be a fumble, but is here a critical result, and Sir Miles gives an impassioned speech about the prowess of his father and his fellow knights at the Battle of Ebacurum, which has the Christian knights around the table cheering.
What is so surprising is that given the flexibility of the Traits and Passions in King Arthur Pendragon, that they have not been used elsewhere—until recently that is. Most obviously in the Paladin: Warriors of Charlemagne, but also in the way that Runes and Passions are used in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, both published by Chaosium. Imagine how Traits and Passions could be used in a roleplaying set in feudal Japan or even somewhere as alien and baroque as Tékumel?

Another innovation in King Arthur Pendragon is its highly structured, generational play. Knights will generally go on an adventure just once a year, typically in the summer when it is easier to travel. This might be as simple as attending court, but it might also be a raid on the neighbouring Saxons, going on a quest, participating in a campaign, and so on. Once that is over, a Knight will engage in training, family matters, and see to his manor, all during the Winter Phase. In game terms this is when a player rolls for any Experience Checks that his Knight has accrued during the summer adventuring phase, but equally as importantly, it is when a Knight and his family age. When a Knight reaches the age of thirty-five, there is a chance that he will suffer random reduction to one or more attributes. This will carry on until either one of the Knight’s attributes is reduced to zero or he retires from play. When he does so, ideally, his oldest surviving son will step into his shoes and become the player’s new Knight. The son has to be a minimum of twenty-one to do that, and even before that, the player has to be rolling each year to see if his Knight’s wife gives birth, and then each year to see if the child survives. This generational play should ideally see one Knight succeed his father and then be succeeded by his son, but the constant need to check to see if each child survives further enforces the perilous times in which King Arthur Pendragon is set.

King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 includes a great deal of information about its setting. This covers not only Salisbury and notable places and personages, but also a guide to the Britain of the time, the customs of Knighthood and laws of the land, both Paganism and Christianity, before moving forward to explore the chivalrous and romantic future of King Arthur’s reign. As well as a relatively short bestiary, a complete battle system is provided for handling combat between hundreds and thousands of men. Then  of course, there is the scenario, which sees the player characters a squires on their last day before being knighted. There is very much a step-by-step process to the scenario, the squires undergoing some training in order to show their players how the mechanics work, and so on. The scenario will be familiar to anyone who has played previous editions of King Arthur Pendragon, but it does a fine job showing how the roleplaying game works.

Physically, King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 is a fine looking book. The full colour, stained-glass window illustrations which preface every chapter are excellent, capturing the high medieval idealism of the Arthurian setting, whilst the sepia illustrations elsewhere depict the romance, the mystery, and the brutalism of the setting. The book is well written and quite easy to read and digest, although a few game examples, more clearly marked would have nice additions.

It would be easy to simply describe King Arthur Pendragon as the greatest Arthurian roleplaying game ever published. Easy because it would be true. It is a fantastic design and it superbly invokes its sources. Yet as a roleplaying game, King Arthur Pendragon is all but without peer, indeed the second greatest Arthurian roleplaying game ever published, Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game, is also designed by Greg Stafford. As to the others, the third best, Age of Arthur: Heroism in the Dark Ages eschews the romanticism of the first two, whilst Legends of Excalibur: Arthurian Adventures from RPGObjects is the best d20 System option for Arthurian roleplaying, Once and Future King, published by TSR for the Amazing Engine rules, the best Science Fiction interpretation, Corporia the best dystopian interpretation, and Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Camelot offered the most comprehensive overview of the genre. Of I, Mordred: The Fall and Rise of Camelot from Avalanche Press, the less said, the better…

Yet, King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 is not quite perfect. The problem is that its focus is too much on set-up for the period in the Dark Ages of its history, prior to the rise and reign of King Arthur. There are notes on this, but they are relegated to an appendix, almost like an afterthought. So anyone coming to the roleplaying game wanting the grandeur and romance of that period may well be disappointed by what they are given in the pages of King Arthur Pendragon 5.2. Similarly, some may be disappointed by the lack of character options, but to be fair, the combination of character Traits and skills allow for more diversity in terms of character personalities than is obvious at first glance. Further, the focus on Salisbury means that there is not a huge amount of scope to take a campaign and its player Knights beyond that and the scenario only gets the player characters to knighthood, with nothing really for them to play as knights, although the Game Master could perhaps adapt one of the solo adventures included. Now there are supplements which will address these issues, most notably The Great Pendragon Campaign, the astonishingly grand campaign which will take a band of Knights and their descendants right through the eighty year time frame of King Arthur Pendragon. As for further character options, there is the Book of Knights and Ladies supplement. Certainly though, an anthology scenarios showcasing just what King Arthur Pendragon 5.2 is capable of would be perfect, but in the meantime there are older supplements available—such as  Tales of Mystic Tournaments and Tales of Chivalry and Romance—which are compatible with King Arthur Pendragon 5.2.

Reviewing the first edition of King Arthur Pendragon—a rather lovely boxed set—in White Dwarf 72 (December, 1985), Graeme Staplehurst said that it “…[L]ooks like being one of the best systemised roleplaying games around.” before concluding that, “Overall, I would not hesitate to recommend the game to any roleplaying aficionado who is looking for inspiration . . . were it not for the dreadful price.” (It was then priced at £25.95—approximately £78 today). Nevertheless, Staplehurst awarded King Arthur Pendragon nine out of ten. In Dragon #107 (March, 1986), Ken Rolston concluded that, “Pendragon’s Arthurian matter and its masterful treatment commends itself highly.” and that, “In presentation, Pendragon is attractive and pleasurable reading. serious fantasy role-playing gamer’s shelf. The Pendragon boxed set is an excellent value, certainly one of the most important RPG releases of 1985, and belongs on every serious fantasy role-playing gamer’s shelf.” Anthony Fiorito, writing in Different Worlds Issue 42 (May/June, 1986), said, “In summation, King Arthur Pendragon is a straightforward, uncomplicated attempt at recreating the atmosphere of Arthur’s Britain. It is easy to understand and extremely playable. The rules flow smoothly and although they do not cover every possible situation, are structured to give a general idea of what to do in any reasonable case.” before highlighting what he saw as weaknesses—the lack of a magic system and the background knowledge required by the Game Master in order to create scenario. (Arguably, the first of these is not really a weakness, but the second may still be an issue.) Fiorito awarded King Arthur Pendragon four stars out of five and finished by saying, “But even with these few drawbacks, Pendragon has turned out to be one of the most enjoyable new role-playing games that I’ve played in a long time. It was definitely worth the money spent. I recommend this game to everyone who has ever dreamed of being a knight in shining armor or pulling the sword from the stone.”

At the top of this review, I stated that Greg Stafford is right to regard King Arthur Pendragon as his masterpiece. Not just a masterpiece, but a design classic, a master class in using mechanics to both model its Arthurian genre and to encourage its players to roleplay its knightly character types. Those mechanics are all but peerless, beautifully elegant, but flexible in how they push a Knight to act and his player to roleplay and explore Arthurian Britain not through the player’s eyes, but through those of his Knight. Then there is that setting, brought to life as a labour of love upon the part of the author, ready to be explored and experienced. Put it in your top ten, your top five, or your top three, King Arthur Pendragon is one of the greatest roleplaying games ever published, the perfect combination of mechanics and theme. 

3 comments:

  1. Congratulations on 1000 reviews, and at such a well-written review at that. The rpg community is lucky to have you!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Noble Sir,

    By the dedication and valour of your art, your many deeds precede you. I stand here in recognition of your Honour and Glory.

    May God Bless you in your endeavours.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Back in the late 80s I, too, was impressed by the Traits/Passions rules so I added these to my own little NPC generator program.
    It would roll up random people for use in my heavily mutated modern day CoC campaign, and I could use a simple roll whenever I had the NPC interacting with the PCs.

    ReplyDelete