Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Retrospective: Pendragon

Unlike RuneQuest, I actually played a lot of Greg Stafford's other masterpiece, Pendragon. Its first edition, released as a boxed set, was published in 1985 and I fell in love with it from the start. I think it'd be fair to say that I am a huge devotee of the legends of King Arthur, but, until I got my hands on Pendragon, I never seriously considered running a roleplaying campaign set in Arthurian Britain. Partly this is because I'm a bit of snob -- shocking, I know! I have a very particular vision of the Arthurian legends and I'd not encountered a roleplaying treatment of those legends that came close to my own. It was also partly a certain amount of fear: I didn't think, despite my very strong views, that I could "do justice" to the legends of Arthur and his knights.

Reading -- and playing -- Pendragon changed all that, though. It is, to be frank, the most perfect out-of-the-box RPG I have ever played. In my many campaigns over the last 20+ years, I only ever recall house ruling one element of the game as presented (mass combat) and even then what I did was build on the original rather than completely replace it. As written, Pendragon walks an incredibly narrow tightrope, simultaneously presenting a very wide-open and flexible game and setting without flinching from its razor sharp focus on its source material.

I've run campaigns where the characters were stalwart companions of Arthur, venal, mercenary knights, and even opponents of the High King and each and every one of them felt like it could have come from the pages of Malory. The reason for that is Pendragon's excellent traits and passions system, which is a mechanical way to quantify character behavior. Traits are opposed sets of personality factors that define a character's feelings or tendencies; most have a moral dimension. Examples of traits are Chaste/Lustful, Energetic/Lazy, and Merciful/Cruel. Passions meanwhile represent strong emotions, such as religious devotion, love, hate, loyalty, and so on. They are the things a character feels most intensely and thus enable him to perform heroic (or villainous) deeds of great renown. Taken together, these systems made it easy -- and enjoyable -- to roleplay a character whose personality not only felt like one from Arthurian legend but also one quite different from one's own.

The other amazing aspect of Pendragon is the backdrop against which it is set: the timeline of Arthur's nearly 70-year reign. This backdrop provides structure and a vital sense of history to a campaign, ensuring that every character's actions are viewed in a context greater than himself. This makes it easy for player knights to do important, even legendary things, without having either to usurp the roles of famous knights like Lancelot or Gawain or to play second fiddle to them. Furthermore, this timeline is important because Pendragon is a generational RPG. That is, characters are assumed to marry, have children, and die, with their sons eventually taking over for them. Given the length of the timeline, it's quite possible that players might be portraying the grandsons or great-grandsons of their original PCs by the end of Arthur's reign. Until you've done such a thing, it's difficult to describe just how mythic it all feels -- exactly as I'd always wanted it to be.

There are innumerable other things that Pendragon just gets right, too many to list. It's a rare type of RPG that so perfectly emulates its source material -- and enables players to do so themselves -- without feeling constrained or artificial. In the last campaign I ran (over a decade ago, alas), I watched with amazement as several players portrayed knights whose personalities and actions were quite unlike their own and they did so without difficulty. That's all the more remarkable given the melodramatic nature of Arthurian legend, with its hotblooded feuds and declarations of undying love -- emotions that are difficult, at best, to portray at the game table without feeling like a bit of a goof (at last in my experience). That's never been a problem with Pendragon, as its rules are written in such a way as to "mechanize" this kind of play without reducing it to mere dice rolls. Again, it's difficult to describe this dynamic but I've seen it often enough that I can only say Greg Stafford really knew what he was doing when he made this game.

In short, Pendragon is a true classic, one of my favorite RPGs of all time. I look forward to the day when I can play it again.

22 comments:

  1. When I asked about Historical RPG's this was one of games I was told to try out. Ive heard good things from the start.

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  2. This game is high on my gaming "bucket list," but I lament the fact that I will probably never find the right situation (the right players, the lack of real-life obstacles to playing that long of a campaign).

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  3. Pendragon is the best rpg there is. It's absolutely perfect, and it's a shame that the perceived narrow focus puts so many people off, as it's brilliant.

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  4. Pendragon has been one of my touchstone games for years now. I've referred back to it to enhance so many other games I've played that it's not even funny.

    Mr Stafford's magnum opus was (and is) a serious contender for status as my Desert Island RPG.

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  5. I'm currently in two Pendragon campaigns: an online game as a player and a table top game as a GM. I've been playing RPGs since the 70s and I have to say that Pendragon is one of the best, if not The Best, games I've played.

    You nailed the review, James. I, too, felt I could not do justice to legendary scenes like Merlin receiving Excalibur from the Lady in the Lake. But the system all hangs together and lets the role playing shine.

    I really like v5. The core rules' large scale battle system left something to be desired; but, the compendium Book of Battle fixed that. Truly outstanding work.

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  6. Wow, in trying to write my own RPG history, I totally forgot the amazing summer I had running a Pendragon game. I need to break out my old books and see what I can borrow/steal for my current games... especially since I'm going for a pseudo-Arthurian feel (albeit one set across the backdrop of a Pulp-era dimension hopping society).

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  7. Totally agree that this is the masterpiece of RPG rule design. Everything in the game works towards a specific goal and does it beautifully. The magic system (I have 4th edition) in particular shines, IMO, at conveying the type of magic I expect from an Arthurian setting - mystical, atmospheric, and expensive in a much more subtle way than any other system I'd seen before.

    I have tried to adapt it to other periods/settings but it's hard to separate the system from the sheer mass of background details. It's easy to re-use Pendragon's ideas in another setting, but that doesn't buy you the research into exactly what fits where.

    A work of genius.

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  8. Is the 1st edition boxed set the 'premier' edition of the rpg? Or were there any 'improvements' in the rules set that appeared in later editions?

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  9. KP, like most BRP-derived games, the differences, in rules, between editions of Pendragon are slight. That said, they do differ in content; for example, the fourth edition has magic rules and rules for foreign and female knights, none of which are in the fifth/current edition core rules. However, you can get that information from supplements if you so wish.

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  10. In the Pendragon RPG I experienced the single best adventure I ever played. We were lowly squires, but it was amazing. This is truly one of the top 3 RPG's of all time (D&D, Cthulhu, Pendragon)

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  11. I agree wholeheartedly. Pendragon is one of the best games there is. And it improves with age, as well.

    The new 5th edition rules are excellent (as @kelvingreen mentioned, the 4th edition did experiment with introducing rules for player character magicians, which did tend to muddy the crystal clear paradigm the game was supposed to operate under).

    Fifth edition finally introduces The Great Pendragon Campaign supplement, a year by year precis of the event's of Arthur's 85 year reign, including "historical" battles (always important for a knight) and scenario ideas that gets the players to interface with the campaign timeline. Previously only the first bit had been published with the third edition supplement The Boy King.

    Additionally I recommend the fifth edition supplemental material available from http://www.gspendragon.com/.

    But any changes in the game system between 1st and 5th edition are negligible. The presentation of the rules have simply been cleaned up and enhanced with supplemental material.

    Oh, and there is a call for adventures at the moment, now that the rights to print further supplements (and produce PDF copies of them) has been officially cleared up, so we can expect a lot of new stuff coming RSN.

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  12. I'm going to have to give Pendragon a shot some time. My husband played it but I never had, and with my SCA involvement I've started studying medieval literature and chivalric writing of that time. It would be really interesting to get to roleplay all that stuff out.

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  13. I have a couple of editions of Pendragon in my collection, but I'd never run or played it, partly because I feared I'd feel constrained on a narrow path. Reading this review makes me reconsider: With the right group, I'd be very willing to give this a try.

    And isn't it interesting just how many good games (Pendragon, Stombringer, CoC, RQ) came out of Chaosium in its heyday?

    Security word: "marrib," as in "The Marrib," a daring bandit leader in Greyhawk's Ket.

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  14. A gaming masterpiece. THE gaming masterpiece. It's perfect. Maybe not the most fun game, but it does what it needs to do with perfection.

    I'm currently running The Great Pendragon Campaign and having a blast.

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  15. The BRP Rome supplement features a version of the Pendragon Trait system adapted to fit Roman ideals that I really want to try out.

    /fanboy mode

    I really can't say enough good things about Pendragon, and James summed things up quite well here anyway. All I can really add is that for anyone who feels put off by the apparently narrow focus of the game, play it anyway. Pendragon stands as a perfect example of why you don't need a gazillion character classes and races to have a varied and interesting party.

    After running a year-long Pendragon campaign that wrapped up back in 2008, I've started playing though the GPC with my girlfriend (in the manner of Chgowiz's Solo D&D Games With the Wife posts) and it's been a total blast.

    Amanda: Sounds like you'd do really well with Pendragon, especially the Great Pendragon Campaign, since the 80 year scope of the campaign compresses and encompasses the whole of medieval cultural and technological development from the 10th to 15th centuries.

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  16. James since you are in a RuneQuest mood Pendragon Pass may be worth a look. Basically Glorantha with Pendragon rules. http://www.poppyware.com/dunham/pdp.html

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  17. Wasn't there a first edition supplement called "The Pendragon Campaign" with a whole reign timeline laid out? I didn't own it, so I can't quote it.

    My favorite piece of work, though, was the Noble's Book, which I discovered came very close to capturing what I'd spent a long time and a lot of dense historical reading on, that is, a fief management system. It was also playably simple, or so it appeared. Yes, time to dust this off for another look...

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  18. Thanks for this. I played it as a kid and recently picked up the original box again but haven't had a chance to revisit. I will soon, though.

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  19. The best RPG ever. 1st edition is my favorite, but all editions have their charm. I have been GM'ing this game since 1985, and always have at least one campaign on the go.

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  20. I can't even count the number of times I tossed out D&D's alignment system to replace it with Pendragon's traits and passions.

    I also love that it's still in print after all these years.

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  21. I have to agree with the post and the many comments that have followed: the first Pendragon is one of the very few 'perfect' games straight out of the box.

    Not only that, but the fifth edition 'Grand Pendragon Campaign' is one of the most amazing campaign supplements I have ever read.

    But I've never actually played it.

    To echo Aaron Thorne's comments above, finding people interested enough to put their time and energy into a Pendragon campaign in any form is a huge obstacle.

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  22. James - sorry to raise this from the dead, but I was elated to find this retrospective. I'm about to run my first game of KAP and it was great to read your post. I've never played it, but reading your post got me really excited to run this game next week.

    FYI - I linked to your blog over on my site:

    http://underworldcleaningservice.blogspot.com/2012/03/pendragon-grognardia-retrospective.html

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