17
Oct
11

you and the farce you rode in on

Lately I have been playing PendragonTo hear Jamie Mal tell it, Pendragon is this high-minded epic:

[Pendragon] is, to be frank, the most perfect out-of-the-box RPG I have ever played. . . .

I’ve run campaigns where the characters were stalwart companions of Arthur, venal, mercenary knights, and even opponents of the High King and each and every one of them felt like it could have come from the pages of Malory. . . .

The other amazing aspect of Pendragon is the backdrop against which it is set: the timeline of Arthur’s nearly 70-year reign. This backdrop provides structure and a vital sense of history to a campaign. . . . This makes it easy for player knights to do important, even legendary things, without having either to usurp the roles of famous knights like Lancelot or Gawain or to play second fiddle to them. . . .  Until you’ve done such a thing, it’s difficult to describe just how mythic it all feels — exactly as I’d always wanted it to be.

Jamie Maliszewski, look to your beard sir!

I am having absolute oodles of fun with this game, but there’s precious little gravitas when we sit down to play.  Not for lack of trying!  Our GM loves the King Arthur mythos, as do I.  To get pumped up before each game, I try to read a few chapters of Le Morte on the subway.  Sir Accolon!  Sir Ablamor of the Marsh!  King Bagdemagus, who by royal decree has the best name ever!  King Leodegrance of Cameliard!  <falls down on ground, eyes roll into back of head as mouth gets all frothy on Arthuriana>

And then we sit down to play, and I fail and I fail and I fail.  Let me regale you with a tale of Sir Carabad.

One time my guy was riding around, when he saw his old friend Sir Laern. His beard had been shaved off by ruffians!  Egad!

I swore vengeance on his beard and rode off.  At a nearby tower the ruffians had hung Sir Laern’s beard on a pole.  Zounds!  The brutes, admirers of Roman fashion, insisted that none should cross the nearby bridge but that they joust on pain of being clean-shaven.  They did not know that a man’s strength and essence flow from his luscious, woolly beard.  But they would learn!

I accepted their challenge, fewtered my spear, and met their champion at a gallop.  Seconds later I was on my backside as the footmen rushed toward me with shears.  Precious little time to act!  I leaped up and decided to confound them by shaving myself and tossing the clippings in the river.  “Hang that from a pole, you villains!”

This was almost my greatest victory in the game so far.  Humiliating myself so bullies would leave me alone.

sir carabad thinks you’re a bunch of pigs

In a subsequent adventure, Sir Carabad and his less-accomplished peers ventured into the Perilous Forest in search of King Pellinore and Glatisant the Questing Beast.  Along the way, we met up with the King of Swine and his pig-knights, who actually turned out to be okay people despite their disgusting dietary habits.

Following the Swine King’s directions, we came to a watchtower . . . which was occupied by a giant, who claimed to guard a princess.  Naturally we rushed into the tower – to realize the princess had been kept prisoner for 80 years and had starved to death, nothing more than a skeleton.  Gadzooks!

The other knights concocted some sort of plan involving riding away with the skeleton (wearing a blonde wig) to tempt the giant away from the tower where he could be lanced.  Sir Carabad, having nearly been killed in single-combat with a giant some years before, sought to super-charge his warrior prowess by invoking his passion for Honor.

As the other three knights charge the pursuing giant, Sir Carabad starts screaming incoherently, furious at their duplicity and their mistreatment of an innocent corpse.  He swoops in, gathers up the princess’s skeleton, and rides off into the Forest Perilous to spend a year serving the King of Swine, convinced that pigs are man’s moral superiors.

omg omg omg

With Sir Carabad out of the action, I broke out my back-up knight Sir Cibno for the Battle of Badon Hill, the big lollapalooza that truly establishes Arthur as rightwise king of all England.  Cibno lasted all of about two seconds, because Pendragon maims you for life in the blink of an eye.  So out comes the auxiliary back-up knight, Sir Bledri.

Badon Hill is a hell of a long battle, but somehow we muddle through, and on the last day, due to some lucky die rolls, we are literally fighting right next to King Arthur, Sir Kay (who totally mismanaged my manor, but that’s another tale), Sir Griflet, King Pellinore, Sir Tor, and Sir Lamorak.  Time to impress some people, and a earn promotion, by invoking a passion!  When King Arthur swings Excalibur and decapitates the Saxon king, Sir Bledri is so fired up that he runs screaming incoherently after the rolling head, snatches it up, and flees with it to a nearby cave.  There he spends months whispering to it how honored he should feel to have been personally decapitated by King Arthur himself.

i play games to escape

The other thing about Pendragon is that when I’m not failing miserably, I role-play a middle-class dude with serious money problems, fretting like hell over real estate prices, parenthood, and inadequate healthcare.  Somehow this is a lot more fun to do in Arthurian Britain, which leads me to suspect that our modern day political discontent would be eased if someone just dressed up like King Arthur and wandered around.

value added

If you haven’t played Pendragon, you should.  You should especially play it with our GM, because he’s very good.  But you should know what you are getting in for.  Pendragon is a game that will kick your ass, badly and repeatedly.  Rolling 1d20 for damn near everything, when one or two scores are 15, a few are around 10, and the rest are hovering around 3,  means you’re going to fail a lot, especially when it really counts. And the advancement system–where you only advance a skill by rolling under the value, then rolling over the value–makes it extremely difficult to improve.  I don’t think any of my characters have ever improved in this way in 6-7 sessions of play.

The Passion system in particular is an attractive nuisance: you can go totally insane, or you become seriously depressed, or you can be so dismayed that you age prematurely–your passions are out to destroy you at practically every turn.  But prospect of invoking a passion successfully is almost the only way to overcome the whiff-factor of your regular skills.  I don’t think I’ve ever invoked a passion successfully.

So taken together, you’ve got some extremely likable knights, slammed with urgent mundane concerns (my clothes keep getting eaten by moths, for instance), but who are desperately trying to be heroes–but who nevertheless keep failing.  I love Sir Carabad dearly, and he’s trying so hard to be a good, chivalrous Christian knight . . . but the dude is a blithering nincompoop.

Still, as long as you don’t take Jamie’s high-mindedness seriously, it’s a blast.  Lucy, can you hold that football for me?

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19 Responses to “you and the farce you rode in on”


  1. October 17, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    It sounds a little more Monty Python than Malory…
    But, you’ve inspired me to track down a copy of this game!!!!!

  2. October 17, 2011 at 2:05 pm

    We’ve been doing pretty well avoiding deliberate Python references.

    None of this is played for slapstick, by the way. I am totally committed to Sir Carabad’s search for moral virtue, martial glory, and worldly comfort. The trouble is that starting Pendragon characters apparently cannot pursue all three of those aims at once. He’s trying so hard to be a truly good knight, and yet fate keeps kicking him in the groin.

  3. October 17, 2011 at 2:50 pm

    Hmm. I think to be clear, the audience should understand that testing a knight’s passions (rolling versus 4 or 5 specific passion stats) is something of a panic-button move for a knight to overcome challenges when no other skill can help or you need more oomph. The downside is that there is a 5% chance of going mad with your passions if you roll poorly and run off in a knightly funk for a year. James had done this twice.
    Once he tested his passions and rolled to charge a giant in vanguard with his fellow knights and ran off with the princess skeleton. And then, with another knight, he tested his passions to fawn correctly before King Arthur in battle and went nuts and ran off with a decapitated saxon head.

    This would lead me to relive that passions are more last-ditch and not for everyday boot-licking of the king.
    It would be nice to have a comparison between Mouseguard and Pendragon since they feel like the share a lot of the same themes. (and I have played in both campaigns with James)

  4. October 17, 2011 at 3:11 pm

    This made me snigger uncontrollably for 10 minutes when I should have been working. Beautiful write-up: I so want to play in your game. I’m trying to imagine a game of Bushido winding up like this and it’s just not happening; there’s something specifically po-faced about Pendragon that makes it the perfect vehicle for such nonsense, like CoC is the perfect unintentional black humour game.

  5. October 17, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    We’ve been playing the game as straight as possible, with most of the sessions of the Boy King period being gritty war stories about marauding Saxon hordes. The humor comes from Pendragon’s inherent randomness, in which there’s always a 5% chance of incredible success and an equal chance of awful failure. This turns an inconsequential encounter like the Tower of the Beard into a full-fledged comedy of errors. Even the most competent knights have a chance of falling off of their horse, throwing their sword into the river, or my favorite, going insane from a botched passion roll.

    Sir Carabad, by far the most virtuous knight in the game, seems to wear the curse of Job. The more pious he gets, the worse his life becomes. Alternatively, the two worldly knights, Sir Pellandres and Sir Guy — known for their pride and cruelty respectively — are both rich beyond avarice, married into good families, and are cultivating a small army of heirs. Even in Arthurian Britain, life ain’t fair. #OccupyCamelot

  6. October 17, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    it is true that i hit the panic button a little too often, but partially that’s because I’ve gotten my ass kicked so badly that I know I can’t achieve anything on my own. QUICK, PANIC BUTTON

    Crane swears he’d never read Pendragon when designing Mouse Guard but the parallels are extremely strong. Mouse Guard has the same degree of horrible suffering, but it feels less sadistic to me in play.

    Pendragon really does feel like Lucy holding that football, promising that this time she won’t pull it away, and I just come charging in. I mean, my odds of invoking passion successfully are 75%, but I have gone insane twice! Maybe it’s just because of the setting, in which noble knights perform astonishing feats, while I just keep screwing up… I don’t know. It’s a very fun game! But also there is a lot of vicarious agony.

  7. 7 skidoo
    October 17, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    This has been a fun game. The session=year system gives it pace, and makes it easy for sporadic players like me to drop in and out. Sir Carabad is by far the most memorable character at the table. I wish the Arthurian cycles had a schlimazel like him. Sir Hervis is suffering less extremely and therefore less excitingly. Whereas Hervis fails a passion and gets depressed, Sir Carabad ends up yammering to a Saxon head.

  8. October 17, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    @Joshua
    “The more pious he gets, the worse his life becomes. Alternatively, the two worldly knights, Sir Pellandres and Sir Guy — known for their pride and cruelty respectively — are both rich beyond avarice, married into good families, and are cultivating a small army of heirs”

    I hate Sir Pellandres and Sir Guy soooooo much.

    “#OccupyCamelot”

    Mordred cannot grow up fast enough.

  9. October 17, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    This game is f’n awesome! It has provided some of the best gaming experiences I’ve ever had and I highly recommend folks try out the game.

    Incidentally, limiting our players to only play knights (no wizards, no magic, etc) has not proved limiting at all for our game. This has been the most “magic” fantasy RPG I’ve ever refereed in the 32 years I’ve been refereeing.

  10. October 17, 2011 at 8:07 pm

    What edition are you playing? Are you playing with the fiefdom management expansion?

    I have an older edition, but have never actually played it. How long did these scenarios take to play out? How long did it take for Sir Carabad to lose his beard, start to finish?

    Thanks for the very amusing write up.

  11. 11 Scott LeMien
    October 17, 2011 at 8:23 pm

    The full expression of Carabad’s dislike came out when he fought a giant, barely escaped, and refused to share with his comrades the location of the giant, since he didn’t want to share the glory. Sir Carabad instead endured insults from Guy and Pellandres about the tree he likely ran into and was shamed into speaking no more of this event.

  12. October 17, 2011 at 9:05 pm

    Hi Tim,

    I started running the 4th Edition, but my book fell apart so I switched up to the 5th Edition. The rules seem to be identical. We’re using the basic Winter Phase rules with the optional Stewardship rules from the Great Pendragon Campaign. I tried adding the expanded battle rules from the recently released Book of Battle, but as one player said, “It looks like you’re doing your taxes.” We switched back to the basic rules, which work fine.

    The sessions generally last about three to four hours, which as a rough rule encompasses all the adventure for the year. The Tower of the Beard itself took about an hour, but in the same session Sir Carabad also drank himself into a depressed stupor, embarrassed himself in front of his liege’s finance, infiltrated the camp of a rogue knight by covering himself in filth, and was stabbed repeatedly by a band of unruly peasants before being wheeled off by his squire to the local monastery to convalesce.

    When it comes to failure, Sir Carabad delivers in quality and quantity.

  13. October 17, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    @Scott LeMien
    “refused to share with his comrades the location of the giant, since he didn’t want to share the glory.”

    You should earn a Deceit check, because that is a total lie!

    This peasant wants us to go rescue his goat. And Sir Guy is all, “Bah, get back, churl, lest I spear you with my lance for speaking to me!” And Sir Pellandres is like, “I shall feign deafness to all but my social equals.” Only Sir Carabad was kind enough to ride on the peasant’s errantry, despite the two other knights trying to talk him out of it! Too little time to serve a low-born serf on a mission of animal husbandry.

    Then when I come back maimed for life, y’all are eager to get in on something, maybe pick over some choice treasure now that your lab rat has set off all the traps in the dungeon. We’re too principled to back him up when he needed help, but we’re not so principled that we can’t scavenge and profit from his horrible near-death experience!

    Then you guys tell mean stories about me running into a tree! It was a giant, I tell you!

    Then you team up with that brutish Duke Derfel and torture the kindly priest to death when I’m too weak to stop you — having passed out by charging into a battle despite aforementioned near-death to help you guys!

    You can’t see it but I’m stomping around my office, shaking my tiny fists at the very thought of it!

  14. October 19, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    I’m starting to think you have a tendency to farcical characters, James…

    So is 5th Edition Pendragon the recommended edition? I know nothing about this game but copying James (and to a lesser extent NYRB) is sort of my thing…

  15. October 20, 2011 at 9:46 am

    Hi,

    Apologies for the off-topic comment, but I couldn’t find a contact email for you.

    I’ve recently put out an ebook of my writing, called ‘The New Death and others’. It’s mostly short stories, with some obvious gamer-interest material. For example I have a story inspired by OD&D elves, as well as poems which retell Robert E Howard’s King Kull story ‘The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune’ and HP Lovecraft’s ‘Under the Pyramids’.

    I was wondering if you’d be interested in doing a review on your blog.

    If so, please let me know your email, and what file format is easiest for you, and I’ll send you a free copy. You can email me (news@apolitical.info) or reply to this thread.

    You can download a sample from Smashwords:

    http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/92126

    I’ll also link to your review from my blog.

    Yours,
    James.

  16. October 20, 2011 at 3:06 pm

    “So is 5th Edition Pendragon the recommended edition? I know nothing about this game but copying James (and to a lesser extent NYRB) is sort of my thing…”

    There’s really not much difference between any of the editions, as far as I can tell. The fourth edition has some extra chapters on making non-Cymric knights and playing druids, but we’ve largely ignored them.

  17. October 20, 2011 at 4:37 pm

    @James Hutchings
    I’m unfortunately busy this week, but I’ll try to e-mail you later on. Remind me if I haven’t done it by Monday!

    @Cr0m
    1e differs from 3e in some significant ways, particularly in the skill chart and how inspiration is handled. 4e is apparently just 3e core + 3e supplements, all in a single binding. 5e is apparently almost exactly the same as 3e.

  18. October 25, 2011 at 3:44 pm

    @James:

    As requested, I’m reminding you (or maybe you sent an email and I accidentally deleted it).


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