Let’s Read an RPG: Pendragon by Greg Stafford Part 1 – Introduction and Chapter 1 (The Pendragon Realm)
Until what looks like sometime in the morning of June 9, 2014, Pendragon, the Arthurian RPG from Greg Stafford is part of the Bundle of Holding. If you are reading that after that time, I hope you still enjoy this write up, but – for the time being – you can get Pendragon, 5.1 Edition, the Book of Knights & Ladies and the Book of Records Volume 1 – Knights for $9.95 and you can get The Great Pendragon Campaign, Book of Battle (Second Edition), Book of Armies and the Grey Knight (all supplements for Pendragon) if you pay at least $21.72. I did the latter option, mostly on how awesome The Great Pendragon Campaign sounded. But this isn’t about that. Instead, this is a series of articles going through chapter-by-chapter of my impressions as I read through Pendragon.
Well, the PDF isn’t overlong, at least. I’ve become somewhat adverse to RPGs that badly gild the lily and can’t get out of their own way. The main RPG for Pendragon, 5.1 Edition, (Just Pendragon from here on, I promise) weighs in at 238 pages, so that seems doable. The table of contents looks pretty thorough, so that’s heartening. Apparently, the first edition of Pendragon was released back in 1981, so I guess 30+ years of refinement will do that for you. Also, almost a full quarter of the book appears to be appendices, which is pretty impressive. I want to read the appendix of tournaments so freakin’ bad, but I’m going to read it in order since that’s kind of the point of this column.
Stafford does a nice job of laying out the tone of the game. This isn’t high fantasy. I begin to get worried, though, because my knowledge of Arthur is basically limited to reading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight when I was in undergrad, watching Disney’s The Sword and the Stone, like, so many times, and playing (probably renting it from the local Movie Hut) an SNES game called King Arthur & the Knights of Justice, which I just had to Google like five times before I could find. I’m sure that it gave me a solid and well-rounded understanding of Arthurian lore.
Okay, so I know nothing about Arthur. I mean, I know there’s Arthur, and Lancelot and Guinevere and Merlin and a Round Table, but that’s really about all I have. But this thing looks to be serious business. It makes a point of saying that the game is meant to cover huge swaths of time, with your character’s heir taking over as your player character afterwards. That’s pretty amazing. I love the idea of scope in RPGs, but most of them really leave it to you to add, but here there are apparently going to be rules and such for technology advancing over time, which is just about the raddest thing I’ve heard today. So I’m feeling pretty psyched about that. There’s a nice little one-page primer of Arthurian history here, which was helpful to me in seeing some of the differences in how Arthur was treated over time by different writers. There is a brief bit at the end about how the game actual plays (although only barely). It looks like you might need some basic Algebra to play Pendragon, which has certainly gone out of vogue in game design over the last several years. Stats look to be roughly on the classic D&D scale, although those with more Glory can apparently surpass regular human limitations on their Attributes. There’s also a mention of ‘experience checks’ and I wonder if this is a similar system to the checks system used in Burning Wheel/Mouse Guard/Torchbearer. It sounds like it may be, but then I’m only going on like a paragraph for now. There’s a brief glossary (and a conversion table from metric to standard measurements for people from most places in the world to figure out how big or heavy things are) and then we wrap up the Intro.
Chapter 1: The Pendragon Realm
I’ve often wondered if it is better to go ahead and get into the worldbuilding stuff first or if you should go ahead and talk about the gameplay and then worry about the fluff later. Still, I get why Stafford went with the setting-first approach. You can tell that this thing means business regarding its Arthur-stuff, so it makes sense that it would lead with the setting. Chapter 1 is entirely about the setting, and weighs in at about 15 pages. It gives you a little about some of the important people in the world (including stat blocks on Uther and Merlin) but mostly focuses on letting the players know what the conventions and expectations are in this world. Customs and social structure are very important, or so I surmise, and failing to understand those things would likely undermine a game of Pendragon from achieving what it sets out to do – emulate the world of Arthur (or at least, an Arthur, given the number of interpretations). We learn about the geography of the world (i.e. Britain), social systems, knight ranks, social norms, justice and a bunch of other things. It’s a dense 15 pages but I certainly feel more confident about my abilities as a GM to capture the feel of what Stafford is going for after reading it. That said, I also get the distinct feeling that everyone that plays in a game of Pendragon should either have read this whole section or at least been given a one page primer on much of the information found therein. There are some RPGs (The One Ring jumps to mind, as well) that really seem to demand a lot of the participants in buying into the mood and world that it is set in so that the game is successful. I feel like that would be the case with Pendragon. That said, I’ve really enjoyed reading it. It made me think that most RPGs might get a little too far down into the nitty gritty details instead of giving you a good 15 or 20 pages of really meaty setting stuff of how the world works, not just what is in it. I feel like the Pendragon world feels alive in a way that some other settings don’t. Of course, I could be speaking too soon and points could be thoroughly belabored later. We’ll see, but for now I feel like this section gave me a really good overview of the culture of the world of Pendragon without telling me about every mountain range or the sigil of each powerful house. I will say, as I read this, that if you enjoy Game of Thrones, which I hear the kids like these days, you will probably like the vibe set up in Pendragon.
If you can imagine, Chapter Two: Character Creation is next. I assume that will be a chapter on creating characters, but my expectations have been subverted before. Family and Fatherland follows that and then Stats and Skills before we get into the crunchy stuff. You can see all of the columns (which as of right now is just this one) by checking out this page. In the meantime, Pendragon is available as part the Bundle of Holding until June 9, 2014. After that time, the PDF is available through DriveThruRPG.