Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Retrospective: The Boy King

In my previous retrospective on Greg Stafford's true masterpiece, Pendragon, I noted that I've had a lot of fun with it over the years. The last time I refereed the game, back in 1999 – I can hardly believe it was that long ago either – I so thoroughly enjoyed myself that, to this day, I still recount episodes from that unfortunately truncated campaign. There are multiple reasons why I can do this, but a big part of it lies in the structure provided by Stafford's must-have companion piece to Pendragon, The Boy King, first published in 1991.

The Boy King is a campaign outline for use with Pendragon, detailing 80 years of "history," starting with the anarchy following the death of Uther and ending Arthur's death and the death of the last knights of the Round Table in the Holy Land. In creating this outline, Stafford leaned heavily on Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur to establish a rough chronology of events – understandable, given the mess that is the Arthurian literary canon. To this, he added material from other sources, both ancient and modern, as well as his own ideas. In doing so, Stafford provides the referee a year-by-year outline of the entirety of Arthurian "history" against which he can set the adventures of the player character knights.

I say "history," because one of the things that Pendragon does brilliantly is square the supposedly sub-Roman time period of the "real" Arthur (assuming there was such a person) with the High Medieval setting implied by most of the literature associated with him. The post-Uther anarchy is a rough and tumble time – a true Dark Ages – where technology and society are closer to what one would expect in late 5th/early 6th century Britain. However, as events unfold and Arthur appears, history as we know it abates and a mythical Golden Age arises, during which time things advance more quickly than they did in the real world. Each phase of Arthur's rule corresponds broadly to a later period of actual history, allowing for more impressive arms and armor, as well as social and cultural development. By the end of Arthur's reign, Britain, though nominally in the 560s AD, look and feel more like the 15th century. But with his death, "history reasserts itself," as the text explains, and that "brief, shining moment" is over. It's an elegant solution that, I think, works well in the multi-generational set-up of Pendragon and emphasizes the ultimately tragic nature of the Arthurian legend.

For each year, The Boy King notes the major events that transpire during it, such as battles, where Arthur holds court, and the arrival of significant characters, and so on. In addition, scattered throughout the book are adventures, some of them little more than outlines for the referee to flesh out and others being more fully described. This is in addition to orders of battle, NPC write-ups, and maps of notable locales. Monsters and legendary beasts receive similar treatment. For each of the five "phases" of the 80-year timeline, the book provides information on technological and social changes, such as the appearance of better armor and weaponry or the institution of new cultural practices. Taken together, it's more than enough material for any referee to use as he wishes, taking what he likes and leaving the rest. The overall timeline is very flexible; no referee should feel constrained by its sequence of events. Like every writer who has chronicled the reign of Arthur, the referee can shape it to his own preferences.

My love of Pendragon is deep and abiding. It's one of a handful of roleplaying games that I'd call "perfect" in that they so utterly achieve their goals that there's no need for another game in that particular niche. To my mind, Pendragon's particular goals were to foster an emotionally charged multi-generational campaign set against the backdrop of the legends of Arthur and his knights and in that it succeeded brilliantly. With the addition of The Boy King, Pendragon made that even easier for the referee to achieve, even one who is not well read on the intricacies of the Arthurian canon. It's quite simply one of the best RPG supplements ever written and a testament to Greg Stafford's love for the source material. I cannot recommend it highly enough.


  1. I adore Pendragon. It's one of my favourite rpgs and everyone I know that has played it agrees, but no one seems to play it! I think the last time I played was around ten years ago, and before that was in 1997ish. It's very difficult to get a game going, for some reason.

  2. And of course there was the actual The Great Pendragon Campaign, put out by Arhaus (the White Wold imprint) for Pendragon 5.0, which is the entire campaign. That said it really is designed to tie directly into the 5th edition basic setting (which is basically working as knights of Salisbury).

    I've run the full campaign twice myself, from beginning to end. I was actually tempted to run it again from a Lothian perspective.

  3. What other “perfect” RPGs occur to you? I suspect I know one or two, but I’m interested to see your list?

    1. Traveller in its classic form is pretty much perfect and I'd probably say that Call of Cthulhu (in any of its pre-7th edition versions) is as well. Moldvay/Cook D&D is close to perfect, too.