Lately I have been playing Pendragon. To 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.
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?