THE COMING OF THE KING
BY THE TIME I started playing their games in 1982, Chaosium already had something of a reputation. Though no one was using the term back then, Chaosium appeared determined to be the first real publisher of what we now call "Indie" games. While most publishers were either trying to "fix" D&D, rip off D&D, or adapt D&D to other genres, Chaosium was cornering the market on deeply literary, art house products, seemingly disinterested in the pop culture trends informing the developing RPG hobby. At a time when Tolkien and Star Wars increasingly determined the conventions of tabletop role-play, Chaosium was drinking from a very different well. Just look at the history.
Chaosium's first RPG was RuneQuest--a game inspired by ancient epics and the academic theories of thinkers like Mircea Eliade and Joseph Campbell. RuneQuest had no orcs, no knights in shining armor, no recognizable Dark Lord. There were no jovial halflings, singing elves, or dour dwarves. Instead, RuneQuest featured a bewildering array of invented gods and exhaustive ruminations on mythology. The most polite word for this game was "niche." Soon after, as the entire point of contemporary RPGs seemed to be accumulating levels and treasure, taking down bigger and badder adversaries, and climbing to greater heights of power, Chaosium followed RuneQuest with a game that turned all the burgeoning conventions of RPGs on their head. Call of Cthulhu, a game based on the writings of pulp writer H. P. Lovecraft had its characters spiraling into despair, madness, and death. These weren't heroes, they were investigators, and horrifically out of their depth. Add to this the fact that in 1981, outside of French academia and those lucky enough to own hand-me-down Arkham House collections, Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos" was practically unknown, and Call of Cthulhu becomes a very art house choice for a company's second RPG.
Fantasist Michael Moorcock was certainly better known than Lovecraft, but the publication of Stormbringer that same year was yet another example of Chaosium refusing to "just do" Tolkieneque high fantasy like everyone else. Moorcock--who years later would be nick-named the "Anti-Tolkien"--famously rejected the creator of Middle-earth in his classic 1978 essay, "Epic Pooh." By making Stormbringer their third RPG, Chaosium doubled down on its own rejection of expected fantasy RPG tropes. Three years later, at the very height of Star Wars fever, Chaosium yet again zigged while the rest of the industry was zagging with the hard science Ringworld. Based on the works of acclaimed writer Larry Niven, Ringworld was another example of the emerging Chaosium pattern; go with the literary rather than the cinematic, the niche rather than the popular.
That Chaosium not only succeeded with these games, but in fact became an established brand through them, says something about the times. Before video games, binge-watching, or the Internet, nerds were bookish. The first generation of gamers in the 70s and early 80s didn't just read Tolkien, they read Howard and Poul Andersen, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, etc. Gygax's Dungeon Master's Guide came with an impressive bibliography. Thus, when eleven-year-old me first encountered Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu back in 1982, the first thing I did was go back into the literature, reading every piece of Moorcock and Lovecraft I could get my hands on. RuneQuest had had a similar effect on me. I read everything from the Iliad to Eliade. Literature was the primary fuel for roleplaying.
Timing is everything, however, and the moment when Chaosium forever defined itself as a gateway drug into classic literature came in 1985, just as the rest of the hobby seemed to be turning away from literature towards television, cinema, and eventually—in a predictable display of inbreeding—itself for inspiration. With Dragons of Autumn Twilight sitting on bookstore shelves, marking the dawn of an age when games now produced their own insular literature and mythology, Chaosium did exactly what they always did and went in the opposite direction. Greg Stafford, who had already given us Glorantha, wrote his love letter to Sir Thomas Malory and 15th century Arthurian Romance. If Call of Cthulhu was Chaosium's greatest commercial success, this game was their greatest artistic one.
It's name was King Arthur Pendragon.
A winner of Origins awards for Best Roleplaying Game Rules and Adventures, the Diana Jones Award for Gaming Excellence, and an inductee into the GAMA Hall of Fame, Pendragon is ranked 5th in RPG.net's highest rated games, and consistently mentioned by both gamers and game designers as a groundbreaking and seminal work. Stafford himself viewed the game as his "masterpiece." At the end of last year, Pendragon returned home to Chaosium with a new edition, "5.2." A more polished revision of its two previous editions (5 and 5.1), the new Pendragon is the definitive incarnation of the game. If you like your games literary, thoughtful, and thrilling, Pendragon needs to be on your shelf.
THE ONCE AND FUTURE GAME
Pendragon is, obviously, a game set in Arthurian Britain. Given 1500 years of telling and retelling these stories, however, that covers a lot of ground. Specifically then Pendragon is the unofficial Le Morte d'Arthur RPG. Despite Stafford's discussions of the English, French, Welsh, and contemporary versions of the cycle (and how to include elements of them in your campaign), what is clear is that Thomas Malory lies close to the heart of the game and defines its parameters. This means Pendragon is a game about knights; there are no rogues, no barbarians, no clerics, and no magicians...at least not as player characters. There are no dwarves or elves (again, not as player characters). Your character is an armored warrior in a feudal system of vassalage, and expected to follow a code of chivalry. It also means that your character's traits and passions are going to be front and center in the game. Malory distinguished his bewildering array of knights by focusing on their personalities; Galahad was chaste, Gawaine lecherous, Argravaine a bit cruel. Lancelot was defined, for good of for ill, by his passion for Guinevere. Because these things were important to Malory, they are important in Pendragon. Finally, it means this game is going to be a bit anachronistic. Malory's work was published in 1485, roughly a thousand years after the period it was set in, and the world he portrays looks a great deal more like his than post-Roman Britain. Pendragon deals with this in a very clever way, which we will get to in a moment, but players need to be prepared for shining armor, jousts, and courtly love.
Pendragon campaigns tend to cover the same period of time as Le Morte d’Arthur as well; namely from the reign of Arthur’s father, Uther, up through Arthur’s “death” and being spirited away to the isle of Avalon. This is about eight decades of game play, and to accommodate this Stafford builds in the conceit that player character knights have one adventure per year. Aside from the adventure itself, there is a year-end winter phase, when the GM and players manage the knight’s estate, arrange a suitable marriage, and go about the business of producing heirs who will then become the new player characters when the original ones are too old for adventure. A player then might end up roleplaying three of four generations of characters. It’s not merely a clever way to get through the whole of Arthur’s reign, but also goes to the root of another very authentic Malory concern…lineage. Arthur’s story is, after all, just as much Uther and Mordred’s as it is his own.
Pendragon uses this pacing to do something else rather extraordinary. When the game begins under the reign of Uther, it is very 5th century Britain. The armor is a bit anachronistic (Norman), but the character’s estate is likely to be a ruined Roman villa or a wooden motte-and-bailey castle. Life is Hobbesian; chivalry is not yet a thing and there is nothing resembling courtly love. Magic and the supernatural are also quite rare. Yet as the game passes through phases of Arthur’s reign, the arrival of the King unleashes a sort of magic over Britain. Time accelerates, so that you race technologically through a thousand years of medieval history. By the end, heavy plate armor, magnificent soaring castles and towers, high chivalry and courtly love all exist. At the same time, magic increases. Supernatural creatures and Fae knights make their appearances, as Britain becomes idealized and enchanted. Of course Arthur’s death will end all of this, and the Dark Ages will rush back in, but for one brief, shining moment, there was Camelot. Stafford brilliantly made Malory’s anachronisms a feature rather than a bug in a way that also allows groups to experiment with “different” Arthurs…one phase can be the historical Arthur, the next the old Welsh Arthur, later the English Arthur or the French Arthurian romances.
The system itself is something of an evolution of the classic Chaosium “basic roleplaying” rules and a precursor to the engine driving Hero Wars and Heroquest. It uses a d20, with the player attempting to role less than or equal to his rating in a skill or trait. A critical success is achieved by rolling exactly your target number; if your skill is 16, rolling a 16 is a critical. A 20 is always a fumble…unless your rating is higher than 20, in which it becomes a critical. It’s a clever way of making sure that higher skill matters, rather than a critical being just a roll of a 1. This universal mechanic handles all die resolutions in the game.
Since the player characters are all knights, they are distinguished from each other though what is probably the real centerpiece of the game, the system of Traits and Passions. Lancelot was no doubt a great warrior, but we remember him for his love for Guinevere. Likewise, Arthur is revered for his sense of justice more than his jousting score. To be true to the genre, the same has to apply to the characters in the game.
Characters are defined then by 13 pairs of opposed Traits, the sum total of each pair being twenty. Pairs include Chaste/Lustful, Merciful/Cruel, Valorous/Cowardly, etc. If your Chaste is 13, your Lustful must 7. If Chaste increases, Lustful goes down. These act as general guidelines how to play the character, unless the Traits rise close enough to 20 that you start earning “Glory” (a form of experience) from them. Thus, if you are renowned for being a Chaste Knight, and earn Glory for your chastity, acting Lustful will probably require a roll. If you fail your Chaste roll, you can act however you like. If you succeed you must be Chaste, or else suffer a penalty (such as the Trait being reduced).
Passions have an even more profound effect on the game. These can be things like Love, Loyalty, or Hate, usually targeted towards a specific person or group. Passions can be rolled against to become inspired by the passion, gaining a bonus for a success and a larger bonus for a critical. On the other hand, failing them, or fumbling them, can drive the character into depression or even madness. We turn again to Lancelot as the perfect example of this. His Love for Guinevere (or Amor, before they became actually lovers), could inspire him to fight furiously for her if she is endangered or abducted, but a failed roll could send him years of madness as a hermit in the woods (all of which has happened in the cycle). This may not seem terribly realistic my modern standards, but it suits the reality of Malory perfectly.
THE LATEST EDITION
Pendragon saw a first and third edition under Chaosium (there was never a second edition, or rather the project was scrapped). These were largely consistent with each other. The fourth edition, however, was a departure, including a player character magic system and broadening the scope beyond just Arthurian knights. The 5th edition, crafted under the direction of Greg Stafford again, brought the original focus squarely back. It was followed by edition 5.1, which mainly corrected the numerous mistakes in the 5th edition text and included the errata. 5.2, then, is nearly identical to the text of 5.1, but it is a completely new full-color layout and gloriously illustrated. Compatible with the previous fifth editions and their sourcebooks (you will absolutely wish to have a copy of The Great Pendragon Campaign, a year by year walk through of Arthur’s reign complete with hundreds of adventures, stats, and a bestiary), it is the cleanest to read and the most pleasing to look at. With RuneQuest and Call of Cthulhu, Pendragon is part of the Chaosium holy trinity and it is only natural to have them all back in glorious color editions now. The game’s influence over the latest edition of RuneQuest is obvious, and it feels “right” to have it back. And Chaosium seems committed to the line, with a sister game, Paladin, that uses the Pendragon engine to bring to life the Charlemagne Cycle, already available.
Ultimately however it is not Pendragon’s position in the history of the hobby that keeps it in print; it is the fact that it continues to offer a play experience not available anywhere else. It’s devotion to its literary roots ensures a voice and style authentic to 15th century Romance, something no other game really does. It doesn’t come off as D&D in Camelot—or even RuneQuest in Camelot. It feels utterly true to its inspirations, and thus entirely unique.
This is so good that I want to translate it into Korean on my blog, with your permission.ReplyDelete
Sure! Be my guest.Delete
Thanks. I'll get into it soon. Again, I couldn't have put it nowhere near as good as yours.Delete
Great blog post. I've yet to have the opportunity to play Pendragon but this post has made me want to play it all the more.ReplyDelete
This is a fantastic blog text on Pendragon and Chaosium's own evolution into their literary roleplaying persona(s). very moving to read, and something that captures the essence of Pendragon. One thing that I would like to say, though, because though I love the newest edition of Pendragon, I have never stopped loving the very first edition of the game. I feel that, apart from the latest editions grand looks, the first game version was so much easier to play. Sadly, I think that these later versions with their many supporting sourcebooks and supplements makes the game into a mire of rules. It's no longer as easy to just roll up a few knights and go adventuring. I actually liked the fact that several very different knight of adverse backgrounds could ride into the sunset. There is just too much background rolls on what happends to the character's ancestors and the like. The same problem occurs in the newest edition of Runequest.ReplyDelete
Apart from this, Pendragon will always be one of my three or four absolute most favorite RPGs of all time. The other's are - probably - Stormbringer (1st or 2nd ed), Call of Cthulhu and WFRP.