Pendragon, 4th edition
is a game that has been out on the market for quite some time, but deserves a re-visit due to its legendary appeal and excellent roleplaying potential. Chaosium is well known for releasing professional and developed world systems that allow the Gamemasters and Players alike to personalize and enrich their gane groups. This is carried through in Pendragon.
As an overview and definite selling point is the size of the book. It's huge with a total of 351 pages, not including ads in the appendix. Every single page is complete with relevant information, taking even the most ignorant Aurthurian reader to a feeling of confidence towards starting a game.
The table of contents is small and precise, making navigation to needed areas of the tome accessible. The chapters are well thought out and the layout makes for easy reading. The first section introduces the unique aspects of Pendragon and the inevitable demise of almost everyone the PC's are bound to meet (this fatalistic viewpoint is one of the greatest parts of the game, bringing out the heroism and tragedy of the setting). A chronology and "Which Arthur Is This?" puts the storyline into perspective.
A summary background is provided for the players in the next chapter, bringing to light prominent characters, such as Sir Gawaine and Sir Lamorak De Gales. Class distinction, a vital element to the epic feudal setting, is brought forth as well.
Character generation can be either detailed (from scratch) or taken from several templates. The generation itself is fluid and follows a traditional roleplaying theme, starting with statistics and continuing towards personality traits and demeanor. The game mechanics are D20 based, meaning an 18 is high and a 9 is average, but in true Aurthurian fashion, the parameters can be stretched to accommodate heroic characters. Now, don't be deluded into thinking this will make for munchkin play, because it won't. Pendragon is a deadly system.
There are two parts of the character generation that really stand out. First are the "Cultural Modifiers". These are bonuses and negatives that will affect the character's statistics and personality traits as well as their passions depending on where they were born and raised. The personality traits and passions are the other character elements that take the game to a higher level.
"Personality Traits" are rated in thirteen opposed pairs. The pairs must equal 20, so if a character has Valorous 15, then cowardly automatically defaults to 5. The ratings help define the characters personality (hence the term, personality trait) as well as provides a "game mechanic" to test the characters with. So if a character is proposed with a banquet affair and has the traits "Temperate/Indulgent" at "4/16" respectively, the gamemaster can force the player to make a roll versus temperate. The player needs to roll a 4 or less on a d20 or "indulge" in the fair, even at the cost of insulting the host (something that can quickly lead to marred reputation in such a social system).
The ratings can be heavily in opposition (18/2), fairly balanced (10/10), or anywhere in between.
The "Passions" are the gross inherent nature of the characters, making them rise above the common folk. The major passions are "Loyalty to your lord", "Love for your family", "Hospitality", "Honor" and the nicely included "Hate Saxons". (The passions may vary according to the aforementioned cultural modifiers.)
The passions are rated from 0 + with a 20 being a normal highest, although through gameplay, they can rise far higher, a "Loyalty Church" at 28 being our groups personal highest.
The player receives a +1 to the die roll for every point their passion rises above 20, and in the game system, an exact roll (rolling a 12 with a 12 rating or rolling a 20 either naturally or after modifiers) is a critical. The passion then adds, minimally, +10 up to a doubling of the next related roll a character makes. In a d20 system, that's a lot.
Now before the system seems to add unbalancing and extraordinary effects, failing one of these rolls can be catastrophic. Just think of Lancelot after he betrays Aurthur and that's what a failed roll can bring you. . .years of wandering around like a crazy man, searching for purpose and guidance.
The Lands and The People chapters further develop the setting, with a nice amount of ingredients to give the gamemaster a confident grasp of the setting. There are a number of locations and "kingdoms" to choose from and they act as both character start points and adventure locale resources. Everything from the number and power of the forces to the geography and notable features are discussed.
The magic system of Pendragon is the farthest thing from your typical fantasy magic system as one can get. It is based off of Glamour, and keeps in line with the legend of the game. Magicians pay for the cost of using magic with age. The more spectacular your effect (which are generally quite subtle) the faster you age. The way around this is sleep, and I don't mean a good nights sleep. It's magical slumber and I'm talking weeks, if not months. Poor Merlin, he should have known he had it coming.
Now for the warmongers out there, there is a Battle System, but this isn't Warhammer. The system is designed to incorporate roleplaying, so as a half an hour of game-time slaughter and decapitation takes place, the PC's get to say all sorts of heroic things, use passions, get injured, rescue comrades, etc…
The seeding of story elements into a mass battle is the important point here, so don't get hung up on the mechanics of it all.
To get a campaign rolling (and this is definitely a campaign game), there is a cute little scenario in the main rulebook. It has the players start as squires hoping to attain knighthood, so they are tested and placed to compete in a series of games and courses that test their many traits and skills. It's great for getting a feel for the system and the intricacies of the setting for both the players and the gamemaster.
Last but not least. . . "Here there be Dragons!" You didn't think knights wouldn't have any beasties to fight did you?
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 5 (Excellent!)