Pendragon, 4th Edition
Pendragon,4th edition Chaosium 352 pages, perfect bound Price = 26.95
Reviewed by Lisa Padol
This review originally appeared in The Familiar #1.
Pendragon is a roleplaying game where players are knights in King Arthur's court. It's huge. Yet, there is absolutely no padding. The 4th edition incorporates much material from Knights Adventurous, a supplement for 3rd edition Pendragon (I presume: I have the supplement, but was unable to locate a copy of the 3rd edition). In the original game, players could only be knights from one particular part of Britain. Now, they can play characters from all over the British Isles, and they need not limit themselves to knights. Among other characters, they can play warriors, squires, bards, enchantresses, nuns, and druids. Where women are concerned, Pendragon correctly notes that player characters should be extraordinary, and not limited by traditional expectations.
Pendragon is not the place to go to learn about history. There are terrible generalizations; centuries are condensed in a confusing manner, and according to a friendly historian, the authors are taking fictional sources too much at face value. Attempting to learn history from Pendragon is as stupid as attempting to learn computer hacking from GURPS Cyberpunk.
What does this mean for gamers? Absolutely nothing. Pendragon is a wonderful game, perfectly suited to its genre. True, centuries and cultures are mixed together with little regard for consistency, but this accurately reflects Arthurian literature, particularly Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur. The phrase "attitude is everything" doesn't just apply to Cyberpunk.
The system is also perfect for the genre. In addition to skills and attributes, there are passions and balanced traits. The latter include pairs such as Chaste/Lustful. Usually, the sum of these two is 20. For Christians and Jews, Chastity is a religious virtue. For Pagans, however, Lustfulness is a virtue. This is a nice touch. Passions include loves and hates which can inspire knights to greatness or drive them into madness and melancholy. Yes, you too can go as mad as Sir Lancelot! The traits and passions will help players get into the mood of the genre.
The rules for using skills are not intuitive. If you are trying to hit a tree, you want to roll no higher than your skill, and a roll of 1 is a critical success. If you are trying to hit another knight, you want to roll as high as possible, without going over your skill. If you roll your skill exactly, you have a critical success. This means that someone with a skill of 2 who rolls a 2 can beat someone with a skill of 18 who rolls a 17. Again, this is in keeping with a genre where even the greatest fighter can be defeated by a man inspired by love, God, or simply fate. And, while counter-intuitive, the system is easy to pick up. Making it even easier is an introductory scenario specifically geared to help players and gms understand the system. There are short adventure seeds as well.
The magic system is beautiful. To determine the amount of power available, a number of d20s are rolled. Magicians can draw power from themselves and from the land, but never know how much they will get. To keep from aging prematurely, magicians must either sleep for weeks after doing magic, or prepare for weeks before. The high cost of magic will ensure that magic will be rare in Pendragon, which is as it should be.
Rules for single combat, melee, and mass battles are included. I have a very low tolerance for combat rules, so it is a tribute to Pendragon's simplicity that I was able to read the rules without becoming confused or bored. There is one area of omission here: Pendragon does not cover siege warfare. A future supplement on this topic is promised, and it is hard to consider the omission a fault, considering the length of Pendragon.
There are only 2 problems with the game. The first is a problem with the historical background. It's not always clear when something is being presented as fact and when it is being presented as traditional to Arthurian literature. Although this does not detract from the merits of the game, Pendragon loses points for it, partly for the confusion and partly because it does claim to present historical facts.
The second problem is carelessness in copy editing and proofreading. The material taken from Knights Adventurous includes instructions to refer to the Pendragon rulebook. There are misaligned charts. There is a surprisingly high number of typos, even taking the size of the book into account. Magicians have a natural talent which they discovered before receiving any formal training, yet there is no indication of how to determine the rating of this talent. According to the back cover, statistics for Merlin, Morgan Le Fay, and Mordred are given. This is not the case. I can forgive the omission of the two magic users, as they are probably beyond the power of ordinary pcs to touch, but Mordred's statistics are needed. In the text, gms are even referred to Mordred's statistics, so the omission was almost certainly accidental.
Nevertheless, I highly recommend Pendragon to anyone who wants an Arthurian setting, as well as to anyone who wants a low technology, low magic setting that allows for heroic combat. The traits and passions make Pendragon ideal for beginning role players who want some guidance for staying in character.
If you have the 3rd edition of Pendragon, but not Knights Adventurous, consider buying this edition. There is a great deal of new material. If you have both the 3rd edition and Knights Adventurous, you already have most of the material here. What you do not have is the section on magician characters, but this may not be enough to justify spending $27.
Re-reading my own words: This game achieves a perfect marriage of system with genre material. It also manages to keep the system simple.
Style: 3 (Average)