I’m going to start with a couple of disclaimers. First of all, this is my very first review. So please be kind. Secondly, I am not a person who usually takes much notice of crunch. At the best of times I am a reluctant GM and as a player I prefer to lie back and let rules wash over me. So please don’t expect too much in-depth analysis of obscure tables and charts.
My final disclaimer to say that while I have played previous editions of King Arthur Pendragon (from now on just Pendragon), I have no connection with the publishers and paid for my copy with cold hard cash.
Okay. Now onto the game.
Pendragon has been with us for many years. When the first edition appeared in 1985 it was remarkable for a number of reasons and a number of ideas contained within that boxed set are only just starting to become trendy now. Pendragon has always been a game which focuses less on the external (adventures, booty) and more on the internal (character development). And, as author Greg Stafford described in a recent RPGNet column, it focuses on addressing one very specific area very well, rather than providing a Pandora’s box stuffed with every character option and setting under the sun.
To expand upon the latter point, Pendragon is a game in which all the characters play knights (although there are some additional options for female characters). And all the knights come from the same fief in mythical post-Roman/pre-Arthurian Britain.
When I told my players this they looked at me and winced. One pleaded repeatedly with me to let him play some kind of mage. Character generation subdued the complaints because while all the characters are knights, they are also all unique. A remarkable system of "Passions" and "Traits" is really what ends up defining the characters. You do not just play a knight, but a "Just", "Valorous" knight; or a "Lustful" Pagan knight with a "Hatred of Saxons"; or a "Cruel" knight with little respect for his liege; or a "Pious" and "Chaste" Christian knight; and so on.
The other aspect of character creation which is notable is that it involves developing a family and a family history for your most important predecessors.
As you will see, bloodline and Traits/Passions are the two factors which really define Pendragon.
Some earlier editions of Pendragon had a wider range of options for knights. They could come from different parts of Europe and be of a wider range of faiths. This edition places stricter limits on those options, but does so with a purpose. The game has its own built in campaign and the early glimpses of this we get in the core rulebook shows this to be more even more focussed and comprehensive than previous incarnations. The "Great Pendragon Campaign" (which is scheduled for release in June 2006) will take the players on a journey which will include at least three generations of play and 80 game years of adventuring covering; the decline of Roman influence, the arrival of the Saxons, the appearance of the Boy King, the battle of Badon, the enchantment of Britain, Camelot, tournaments, fine amor, the Wasteland, the Fisher King, the Holy Grail, the fall of Lancelot and the final tragic battle at Camlann.
As noted above, bloodline is something of a defining factor and this is because time passes at a much faster rate than most games. It is recommended that players only have one “adventure” per year and that should mean that the years just fly by. Each year includes a “winter phase” where the action takes a break and the players settle domestic affairs. With the passing of time your knight will marry, develop a fief and have children. He (or she) will also grow old and decrepit and will eventually have to retire. And this is where you will be very grateful for those kids. As the campaign progresses your character's children and his/her children's children will take front stage. Your dynasty will expand. Connections will develop with others. Loyalties will be tested. And alliances will be forged and shattered.
The Crunchy stuff
Okay, that probably gives you a feel for what the game is about. I am now going to try and address the crunchy and rulesy aspects of the game and look at how well it manages to achieve what it is aiming for.
The heart of the system is largely a modified version of Chaosium’s BRP (as used in Call of Cthulhu, Stormbringer et al), although a d20 is used instead of a d100. This engine drives skills, passions and combat and is entirely functional. In simple terms this system works by presenting attributes as a number between 1 and 20 and asking players to roll under that number on a d20 to succeed. Rolling the target number exactly results in a critical success.
Traits operate on a similar principal but with one neat innovation. All Traits are paired with a second, diametrically opposite, Trait. Each pair of Traits always adds up to 20, so a “Valorous” of 17 is paired with a “Cowardly” of 3. If the “Valorous” score drops, then the “Cowardly” score automatically rises.
It should be mentioned that Traits are largely meant to help players decide how to act, not force them to act. A player with a “Lazy” character is expected to roleplay his or her character that way. But the player can try to make that character more “Energetic” through roleplaying, perhaps by volunteering to take on extra duties. Taking action in accordance with a Trait usually results in there being a chance for that Trait to increase during the “winter phase”. While Traits are therefore largely player driven, there are times when a GM will not give players a choice and will ask them to roll against a Trait. For example, a player will have to roll against the “Energetic” Trait if he wants his character to wake to the sound of Saxon raiders burning down distant stables.
This system works remarkably well. It clearly appeals to the thespians amongst us, but the mechanics can also have the remarkable effect of gently convincing “roll-players” to become “role-players”. Open rewards for certain behaviour taps into most players’ inner munchkin; any Trait of 16 or more gains the character Glory (the currency of the game); and having high values in a number of different Traits might make your character “Religious” or “Chivalrous” resulting in even more rewards. Christian knights who demonstrate all the Traits demanded by their faith are protected by an aura of holiness that acts as a bonus to their armour. What kind of mini-maxer isn’t going to start making his character act Merciful and Chaste with that kind of carrot?
Where Traits reflect facets of personality, Passions reflect emotions such as Love, Hatred and Loyalty. Passions are not paired so on the surface they appear to work at a more traditional mechanical level, but they are again intended to guide behaviour and are largely player driven. Having said this, an option is open to players to turn the numbers into crunch and this can have a dramatic effect on play. A player may use a “Loyalty (Lord)” Passion as a guide to decide if a character is going to participate in a rescue mission, but he or she can also choose to roll against the Passion to see if the character is inspired by it. This is a choice with great risk because while a success might result in a bonus (for example a significant bonus to sword skill which lasts until the rescue is accomplished), failure can result in despair (a negative modifier until the rescue attempt is successful) or even a spell of madness which will take the character out of play for an extended period. And even a successful attempt at inspiration might result in a spell of mechanically driven melancholy for the character if the rescue attempt ends in failure.
As well as working well, Traits and Passions do a remarkable job in ensuring the game captures the feel of Arthurian legends. Defending a village from attack might be a hoary old roleplaying standard, but in Pendragon it suddenly becomes a chance for players to demonstrate their “Valorous”, “Just” and “Merciful” Traits and to demonstrate their “Love” of their family or their “Loyalty” to their liege.
I won’t go into too much detail on the other aspects of Pendragon mechanics. I will just add that there is a neat opposed resolution mechanic which makes combat simple and elegant; a critical hit system which gives even the lowliest fighter a chance to land a lucky blow; a comprehensive battle system which allows players to participate in mass combat as either followers or leaders; and a skills system covers everything from tapestry weaving to heraldry.
Overall the mechanics aspects of Pendragon do a remarkable job is achieving the aims of the game in a effortless and extremely graceful manner. I have no hesitation in giving the game a rating of 5 out of 5 in this aspect.
Pendragon is a 226 page hardbound book with a largely monochrome interior, one pull-out full colour map of Britain and a series of famous shields also presented in colour. The interior illustrations are largely functional and resemble many in other White Wolf products. The cover is a little dull in colour and as a result the book doesn’t stand-out on bookshelves. The cover art did not strike me as being particularly Arthurian, but a note on the inside tells me that it shows Arthur fighting the Troit boar – something I regard as being a slightly surprising choice because it seems an obscure part of Arthurian myth.
The content of the book is a revelation for those used to 4th edition (see below). Clean, sensible and well structured it is a joy to browse and a breeze to navigate. I also really enjoy the style of writing through-out. Greg Stafford doesn’t just tell you how the rules work, but explains why they work and how to make the best use of them. It is a style of writing which shows respect to the reader and has the effect of engaging him or her in an often thought-provoking dialogue.
Any comment on presentation would not be complete without acknowledging that there are a surprising (and disappointing) number of basic typos through-out the text. On occasion this does distract from the enjoyment of the author’s prose.
Overall, the structure and the prose are excellent, but the slightly dull art and the typos prevent me from awarding the game the highest rating for Style.
What makes this edition different?
There are probably many of you who have owned earlier editions and just wanted to read this review to find out what is different about this edition. Sorry for making you wait so long to get here.
For a start this edition is much more streamlined than earlier editions. The system has been trimmed back to the bare minimum, meaning no knights from exotic places like Cornwall or Cambria and no magicians. While some might feel this is a loss to the game, I feel it makes it a much more focussed beast.
The game is leaner, but additions and clarifications have been carried out in all the right places. I can finally understand the system for mass combat and the addition of “British Christianity” and “Roman Christianity” adds an extra dimension that makes up for the loss of the additional cultures.
Actually, I think the changes to the way religion is addressed deserve a special mention. The two forms of Christianity and the additional option of Paganism are not designed to put knights of different faiths in opposition with each other – but to give them slightly different world views. Three knights watching peasants at work in the fields might see three different things. One knight may see virtue in the simple hard work on display, another might believe the peasants would demonstrate more virtue if they spent less time in the fields and more time in Church and a third might see virtue not in the work, but in the timeless pattern of growth and rebirth that is being facilitated.
Religion in Pendragon is a filter through which characters view the world not a handy excuse to commit atrocities.
The one amendment I am not convinced about in this addition is the fact that character creation has lost much of its random aspect. This is largely a personal preference issue and I know many people prefer points based character generation, but I feel that in two areas – Traits and Passions – this makes for a slightly less interesting game. In the new rules there is no chance a character will be unexpectedly Lazy or lacking in Love for his family. While these attributes may develop over time, I feel that starting characters end up a little too much like a blank canvas.
Pendragon is designed to take you into the world of early Britain. Into a green and pleasant land besieged by Saxon hordes. It will take your party from the darkest days of anarchy, through the Battle of Badon, into the glory of Arthur's realm and beyond into the final dying of the light.
Pendragon is not a game intended for brief flirtation and one-off adventures. It is an immersive experience and is most rewarding when played over an extended period of time. The rules are simple and elegant and are a perfect match for the setting and feel of the game.
Very highly recommended.