Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Ads of Dragon: Pendragon

One of the interesting phenomena I have observed is that, while the first edition of a game is often badly edited, unclear, and even incomplete, it's also often the most evocative edition, perhaps owing to the "rawness" that is the source of its flaws. This is certainly the case with the new RPG advertised in issue #96 (April 1985).
I played the heck out of the first edition of Pendragon and still consider it my favorite edition of the game. A big part of it, I think, is that it wasn't yet the bloated, unfocused game it would eventually become in later editions (though, in fairness, the 2005 edition goes some way toward recapturing the straightforwardness of the original). And one cannot understate the effect that Lisa Free's glorious artwork, which, in my opinion, suited the Arthurian world like few others. In any event, I have fond memories of this particular ad, since it reminds me of many excellent campaigns with my friends back in my high school days.


  1. Pendragon is such a gorgeously made game that I get joy from just reading it much less playing it.

  2. When people ask for suggestions on how to change an RPG, there are far more suggestions for new things to add than for current things to take away. Even when an element is widely seen as too much, most of the time players want designers to keep it but simplify it, as in 3.5's grappling rules. Also see the outcry about gnomes, and the baffling survival of psionics.

    So maybe subsequent editions tend to suffer from what computer programmers call 'feature creep'?

  3. Actually I think it's a matter of the subsequent editions (of any game) not having as much impact (due to innovation) as the first edition, rather than the addition of any extra features. The first time you read a really good and innovative game system is going to be the one you remember (then again, does anyone actually reread subsequent editions beyond looking for what has changed).

    With Pendragon the subsequent editions were generally ways to merge the various supplements gracefully into the main rules.
    Although the attempt to extend the game system to non-knights in 4th edition (such as by including actual magic rules), was a big self-admitted mistake.

    Then again it wasn't until the 2005 edition that Greg was able to use the rules to do what he wanted all along, and tell The Great Arthurian Campaign from beginning to end. Unfortunately personal and business problems kept interfering before then. And each iteration did teach valuable new lessons.

    The 2005/5th edition, now produced by Nocturnal, is probably my favourite edition, although you'll need to pick up the supplements if you want to play a foreigner knight or lady or run your manor and retinue or fight a battle against more detailed opponents.

  4. If I could bring one thing from Pendragon to a game of D&D/WFRP, it would be the idea of building in a game mechanic for Traits and Passions. Not to determine the way that players play their characters, but to offer guidance and to provide some form of mechanical test when terribly out of character actions are proposed, and a boost to the mechanical resolution of actions that draw on a Passion.

    Of course, there are different combinations of Traits that are deemed praiseworthy by different cultures/religions, which could easily be incorporated into a fantasy world with demi-human races, and might even encourage the players of demi-humans to play their characters are something other than short and tough, or haughty and magically-inclined, humans.

  5. Traits/Passions were introduced into D&D with the GAZ7, Northern Reaches supplement. It has fewer traits than Pendragon, but it works exactly the same. Though it seems strange on a first sight, it works quite well in practice.
    In fact, the GAZ defines which Traits are more characteristic based on race, nationality and class.

  6. I love the 4th edition of Pendragon, since it allows me to have lots of options to choose from without needing the supplements. And the magic system is awesome.

  7. @Antonio, I have a copy of GAZ7 and I must have paid little attention to that at the time (before I knew anything of Pendragon other than it was widely regarded as 'the best RPG that you have never played'). I'll have to drag it out of the cupboard and have a re-read. Do any of the other GAZ (or Creature Crucible) books have a similar mechanism... thinking about it now it would have been a great way to put some mechanics into the knightly orders of Thyatis, the cultural distinctiveness of Yarulam, of Ethengar, and of the Autraghain Clans, for example.

    It would also produce a way to mechanically explain a world with *thousands* of 36th level Magic Users, including a whole empire of them! By having Magic Users develop a very peculiar set of traits as their magical power increases, which lead to them taking less and less of an interest in the mundane world (a road that ends in transformation into a [demi]Lich, for some), you can still have a fantasy world where 9th-level Fighters can be heroes, armies of 0-level Normal Men make sense, and where there are still seasons, diseases, and all the rest that would be reshaped by a world in which thousands of 36th level Magic Users had the same motivations and concerns as ordinary folk.

  8. @DrBargle
    No, the Traits system only appears in GAZ7, but the authors provide the relevant trait modifiers for all the nations/races published up to GAZ7.
    The idea of traits for MUs is definitely interesting, though I usually don't put much weight into the demographics of adventurers, especially of MUs. My reason being that when you reach those levels, you are naturally interested in other pursuits (e.g. Immortality) and watching your back against the *other* 999 36th level MUs :)

  9. I think people become complacent. The old adage: "Familularity breeds contempt," comes to mind.

    After a successful first edition, they pay a little less attention each time.

  10. 1st edition is the most awesome game ever written. 3rd edition created power creep and unintelligible battle rules, but is still a great game.

  11. RE: 4th Edition Magic

    The 1st edition's explanation for NOT defining a magic system made far more sense, whatever the merits of 4th's system. I've found that magic is far less magical when it's reduced to spell slots, Magic Points, skill rolls, etc. If I could persuade all my players to leave magic to NPCs (and the GM) I would.

  12. Well if a player wants to spend 1 month casting a spell and then rest for other 6 months...that's his choice. Besides, having a system for magic does not imply that PCs are allowed to use it. In fact, I never had a spellcasting PC in my games, but the magic rules were a useful tool for me as a GM.

  13. I can see your point Antonio. After all, we're not all Greg Stafford, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of Athurian lore, so for many us, brought up on D&D and the like, the operation of magic by GM fiat is more likely to lead to a non-Athurian style of play than one bound by a game system.

  14. "Although the attempt to extend the game system to non-knights in 4th edition (such as by including actual magic rules), was a big self-admitted mistake."

    The admission of the mistake was itself a mistake - the magic system in 4th edition is a triumph of design verging on genius that transforms the game not only for magic-using players but also their knightly companions. I would never bother with non-magical Pendragon again as it would seem incomplete.


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