Archive for the 'Pendragon' Category


an “oriental” adventure

I’m using “oriental” in scare quotes because my partner is Chinese and keeps rolling her eyes when she sees that word.  But y’all know what I’m talking about.  Last night, with very little prep, I ran a kinda dumb scenario based on OA1: Swords of Daimyo for half of our Pendragon crew (Skidoo, stop looking after your family and come back!)  Alas, while it did feature ninjas wearing Spider-Man costumes, there were no giant robots or love-smitten beetle-accessories.

a nice day for a . . . white wedding

The unstoppable forces of TANAKA Toru (poetry-loving samurai lord of Bingo Village, notorious for its unbelievable hidden treasure caches) and WATANABE Yuki (financially ruined Bushi and master to the strange hairy gibberish-speaking forest gnome Konando) combined to thwart a wedding!

A wedding of eeeeeevil!

Or, at least, a wedding involving a heartbroken suicide returned as a horrible demon of insanity, a clan of ninjas wearing Spider-Man costumes, and more court intrigue than could easily be displayed on a relationship-map. Plus, burning buildings! A pavillion tent with one entrance but three exits! Psychic duels! A display of incredible archery! “Furious” urination! An attempted seppuku! Sake! Sorcery! And a litany of similes as inexhaustible as the ocean’s waves!

Poor Tanaka was driven insane, Watanabe kept encouraging the bridegroom to kill himself, and stout-hearted Konando rang a gong like a gong-ringing monkey-dwarf to wake up a priest who actually did the hard work of banishing the demon to save the day.  But he is only a priest, and everyone knows that glory goes to the warriors.

some half-assed prep

Before I had a scenario in mind, one of my players rolled up a down-on-his-luck Bushi character of very low-class origins.  When the Oriental Adventures Monthly Events table indicated that there was to be a Momentous Wedding . . . well, you gotta get Toshiro Mifune to that one somehow, don’t you?

By complete coincidence, this player had named his Bushi after one of the loyal vassal families of Niwa Hirotada, shugo-daimyo (military governor) of Miyama Province.  So I figured some comical fop had gotten the names confused and would deliver an wedding invitation for this dude.  And since, under the Oriental Adventure rules, he would constantly be smacking into serious negative reaction modifiers when hobnobbing among the aristocracy, hijinks would probably ensue.  And they did!

So, dig it:

  • NIWA Hirotada = military governor, head of Niwa family, more or less decent guy
  • IGI Tajima = civil governor, a sinecure position; mostly collects taxes and gives grief to the rival Niwa family
  • EBISAWA Ryu = head of the Ebisawa family, traditionally loyal retainers of the Igi clan . . . buuuuuut, Niwa Hirotada has offered his niece in marriage to
  • EBISAWA Saberu = son of Ryu; engaged to Niwa Hirotada’s niece; just had a heartbreaking affair with
  • WATANABE Minori = princess of the Watanabe clan which is traditionally loyal to Niwa.  Committed suicide when Saberu called off their elopement.

So what’s going on in political terms is that Niwa Hirotada is peeling off the Ebisawa family’s loyalty to the Igi clan. If anyone had known that Saberu was already having an affair with a girl of the Watanabe family (loyal to the Niwas) it might have accomplished the same result, but nobody knew, it all came to tragedy, and Saberu is kind of a mess.

Minori’s ghost comes back as a Con-Tinh, sort of an evil dryad demon of insanity, haunting the cherry-blossom Shrine of Taro the Poet, where Saberu will be married to Niwa’s niece.  She is supernaturally disappointed in Saberu, and plans to possess the spirit of his bride and have them commit a lover’s suicide.

Meanwhile, someone else has hired a clan of Spider-Man suited ninjas to kill young Saberu.  All signs would seemingly point to the civil governor Igi, who is mad that the Ebisawa clan is breaking up with him, but there are actually several other possibilities based on the political situation in Swords of the Daimyo.  I hadn’t really figured out who is responsible, except that blaming Igi was probably too obvious to be true.

It turns out that a second player arrived, created a Samurai loyal to the Niwas and a friend of the Watanabe clan, so that was handy for the purposes of exposition.

The adventure consisted of mostly improvised social encounters as the players gradually pieced the social and political puzzle together, and fended off various assassination attempts and supernatural events.

Major adversaries included the Con-Tinh ghost of Watanabe Minori, three unnamed 5th level Ninjas (a Ninja/Sohei priest with 10 first-level followers; a Ninja/Wu Jen who impersonated a member of the entourage and attempted to poison Saberu; and a Ninja/Bushi who was going to kill Saberu on his wedding night with a sword he’d stolen from the PC Bushi), a group of drunken Were-Bears who kept breaking into a village’s rice-warehouses looking for sake, sarcastic fop Igi Sanekata, and various other stock-character NPC’s.

what worked

The Yearly, Monthly, and Daily Events charts in Oriental Adventures are good stuff, well worth stealing.  For the last five years, my exposure to D&D has consisted very largely of dungeon-delving per the ethos of the OSR revisionist/purist movement.  The idea of running a D&D wedding scenario struck me as irresistibly ludicrous, and it was.

Swords of the Daimyo has a complicated political situation, but that’s actually pretty good in a court intrigue scenario.  The trick is to present that stuff in bite-sized pieces.  In this case, I took the description of Muroto Village from the gazetteer, figured the political situation there would easily tie into the Marriage Event, and bang, the political stuff fell into place immediately.

The rules for Psychic Duels were used, mainly because I wanted to force it in somehow.

Though this scenario was written up perfectly straight-faced–it’s a bummer, basically–the players brought their usual farce and a good time was had by all.  One player couldn’t stop boasting about his secret treasure caches, while the other was busily trying to pretend to be an aristocrat (or hide from people who recognized him).

Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the preposterous Korobokuru barbarian, Konando (originally inserted as a henchman for the Bushi PC), who didn’t speak Fake Japanese and nobody else spoke his dialect, so he mostly communicated in gibberish.  Some interesting facts about Konando emerged during play:

    • If his master is a sleep, Konando will wake him by tugging on the left big toe to signal supernatural danger, or the right big toe to signal ninjas
    • Konando is a skilled woodsman, passable dancer, and terrible cook
    • On formal occasions, Konando wears a big pile of furs, to the point where he looks like Captain Caveman
    • Though Konando cannot understand the content of a haiku, he can count meter very well; furthermore he finds blank verse intolerable
    • The word for “ninja” in the Korobokuru dialect is “Los Banditos Malvados!!

what did not work as well

I’m not great at improv.  If the players had said, “Screw this wedding, let’s just hang out in the city instead,” I did not have anything planned.

I was under an extremely tight time crunch, which is why I did virtually zero prep.  As a result, I defaulted to 2e Wizard spells for the Wu Jen ninja instead of using spells from Oriental Adventures, of which there are many and they are not obvious.  (Quick: what does “drowsy insects” do?  Answer: I thought it made guys like Mothra real tired, but it turns out creates a cloud of mosquitoes who put people to sleep.  Who knew?)  Anyway, even with “standard” spells this guy was a pretty devious assassin.

The Iaijutsu, or fast-draw, rules only give you a +1 bonus to surprising your enemy (on a 1d10 roll), which isn’t enough to be worth a proficiency slot.  (Maybe in OA surprise is done on a d6?  Still, lousy benefit.)

You really do need non-weapon proficiencies, or some way of adjudicating courtly nonsense, when your characters aren’t slogging through a dungeon all day.  The OA/2e proficiency system is kind of a kludge.

in summary

Swords of the Daimyo is quite worthwhile as a gazetteer, as I suspected.  Dungeons & Dragons can be hacked to do Fake Japan, and it was fun, but it’s not a particularly elegant fit.  On a player’s advice I’m reading through Bushido (only $18 for a print copy!) which seems interesting (if not for all the dang early 80’s derived scores nonsense).  Bushido apparently doesn’t come with a local setting (maybe I missed it); you could probably drop Swords of the Daimyo in there and get something quite worthwhile.


charlemagne in action


Our regular Pendragon crew could not play on Friday night, so I spruced up some one-page dungeons and ran a session of Charlemagne’s Paladins for Skidoo, whose Pendragon character Sir Hervis is the terrifically accomplished straight man to Sir Carabad the Schlimazel.

Running 1:1 D&D is rough going for the player. Skidoo grabbed a pre-gen, Lady Odelia, a dual-class Thief 5 (ex-Cleric 5) and a bunch of 3rd level Fighter henchmen, and set off for adventure, before realizing that a lone Thief and her gang of henchmen are in for a world of trouble.

Briefly: Charlemagne’s court enchanter, Maugris, had a prophetic dream about the city of Avignon and the future of Christendom, and asked Lady Odelia on behalf of the King to pacify the surrounding lands.  Avignon and the territory between it and the Pyrenees was  known back then as “Septimania,” which sounds like some Labor Day-related car sale event.

But in the late 700’s A.D. Septimania had a lot going on, in terms of D&D settings. About forty years prior, Charles THE HAMMER Martel practically stomped the whole region into the dirt when the local Visigoths, led on by promises of assistance from the Moors, wouldn’t submit to him. So the place is littered with ruins, the local population is nominally Christian but there are still lots of pagan traditions and cults (variants on Saxon deities, who were variants on Norse gods), there are barbarian and Moorish raiders from the Pyrenees, and towns like Marseille get a fair amount of trade.  Narbonne is in the process of becoming a center of learning and religious toleration, with lots of strange folk mingling. To the southwest, the dangerous Moors; to the southeast, the treacherous Lombards.

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex

draft player map of Avignon area, 6 miles per hex (French people, point out what I got wrong!)

Anyhow, Odelia wasn’t too keen on spreading the King’s influence, but did want to help the locals simply for the sake of doing good deeds, so she traveled down to Avignon by riverboat. Along the way she hoodwinked some Ogres who had set up a toll, and negotiated the release of one of her men from mischievous Nixies. During the journey she became increasingly fixated on finding the bandit stronghold of Scarlet Jacques, whose depredations had alarmed the locals.

(Of the one-pagers I had brought with me, this stronghold was the one I had not stocked—and, it turns out, had not brought the map after all. Naturally it was the plot hook the player wanted to pursue…)

Anyway, so Odelia set off into the foothills of the Alps, and ran into five Hill Giants who she had to let pass by.  She interrogated a desperate merchant who had escaped from Jacques’ alpine fortress: there are at least 150 bandits, a pagan priest, and a magician of terrible power: far more than a Thief and six knights could handle. Regrettably descending back into civilization, we had to stop when a flock of Wyverns carried off half of Odelia’s henchmen and another poised on a rock above her, daring her to make the first move…

what worked

This felt exactly like any D&D game ever played. Some overland hex exploration leading to encounters solved through lateral thinking (she was a Thief after all), and just GM’ing what the dice told me would happen. My only deviations from the 2e rules were using the B/X wildness encounter charts, because I didn’t have the Monstrous Compendia on my iPad.

what didn’t work

Odelia in theory had access to Cleric spells, but the casting time problem–everything in Charlemagne’s Paladins takes ten times longer to cast–meant that it was pretty hard to plan ahead given the extremely random nature of overland travel in the game. I suspect that this is something that could be overcome with some thought and more exposure to the spell list.

The other thing that didn’t work was having a solo adventurer engage in overland travel, even with a retinue of meat shields. A lot of really horrible monsters live in the mountains, and it was a minor miracle that Odelia survived for over a week of game time.

charlemagne: a cool guy

All the stuff that King Arthur gets credit for, like unifying a diverse kingdom and establishing order after a long period of chaos, conquering Europe, trying to instill a moral code among the warrior class, and encouraging culture and learning–Charlemagne actually did that stuff, though of course this was the work of generations beginning with his grandfather Charles THE HAMMER Martel and continued by his father Pepin the Short. From (very biased) accounts Charlemagne seems like an extremely talented and interesting person.

charlemagne: also, turned into a dick for propaganda purposes

As we discussed prior to play, so much of our society’s imaginative life is focused on the idea of “good” violence. It’s a very problematic concept, and I’m sure it’s been part of human nature since the dawn of time, but Charlemagne did “good violence” on a scale never before seen in Europe, particularly against Muslims.

Charlemagne’s own attitudes toward Muslims appear to be complex and historically contingent: the disaster at Roncevalles started because he was willing to make an alliance with one group of Muslims against another faction.

But a few centuries later, during the Crusades, people looked to Charlemagne’s battles against the Moors as a kind of propaganda tool to inspire everyone to go to the Holy Land and slaughter people. The chansons de geste, which are at the heart of the Matter of France, were composed during this time.  For the next thousand years, whether fighting crusades, colonizing the New World and Africa, holding various ideological revolutions, World Wars, Cold Wars, and now Terror Wars, world history has been shaped by Western Civilization’s seemingly endless appetite for “good violence.”  And for Europe, the big proof-of-concept was Charlemagne, at least as perceived in propaganda.  (And again, this is probably not unique to the West, but they ended up in a position to indulge that appetite fairly often.)

Basically, in 2013 your attitude about legendary Charlemagne killing hordes of legendary Evil Muslims is going to be shaped by our own experiences of “good violence” in our modern crusade.  I haven’t resolved how I feel about using these themes in the game.


pendragon: the holy grail, murder-pigs, and impregnation critical

Much has changed in the realm of King Arthur since my last post about our on-going Pendragon game.  The last update occurred sometime around the Battle of Badon Hill, where Arthur successfully repelled the Saxons and cemented his reign once and for all, around 518 A.D. according to the Great Pendragon Campaign; or game is now roaring into 531 A.D. where our now middle-aged knights are about to harrow Hell for my dead pagan enchantress bride.

I don’t even know how to summarize things, so here are just a couple of snippets.

Beardsley: Sir Lancelot and the witch Hellawes

don’t call the queen a pig (unless you really have to)

The big thing in Sir Carabad’s life, since we last saw him gamboling among the faerie pig-people of the Forest Perilous, was his infatuation with the enormously wealthy Lady Madule of the Raven Locks.  Lady Madule is an unusual person: bored of standard tales of knightly accomplishment, she found Carabad’s autobiography of failure, woe, and insanity among the Fey very pleasing.  She is a Goth among Goths.

(We would later realize that, under the medieval legal system, a widow has more property rights than an unmarried woman, so arguably she selected Carabad as a husband extremely likely to die or go missing forever.  I have been in relationships like that.)

To curry favor with his lady-love, Sir Carabad agreed to retrieve some golden apples, and his friend Sir Clegis vowed to assist.  A king whose wife was dying in childbirth advised them that the apples would be found in a forest . . . but the forest could only be entered by fugitives.

CARABAD: Wait, so he said it could only be entered by fugitives?

GM: “Yes, fugitives.  Now, I don’t like Arthur’s knights very much, but you’re welcome to stay here until any fugitives come along, and…”

CARABAD: And his wife is sick?

GM: “You may see for yourself how she struggles!  Darling, the midwives say it will not be much longer, they have undone all the knots in the castle–”

CLEGIS (CARABAD’S FRIEND): Oh brother, I see where this is going.  I’m getting the horses ready and hiding the king’s vampiric spear.

CARABAD: “My lord, no wonder your wife suffers: so would any pig trying to birth a half-human child.”  Before he can order his men to kill us, I jump on my horse and–

GM: He doesn’t order his men to kill you.

BOTH PLAYERS: He doesn’t?!

GM: He just fumes and thunders, “Get!  Out!”

CARABAD: Jeez, how can we insult him any worse?  Um, I say–

CLEGIS: “No, Carabad, let us away and find some other way to become fugitives before we are slain.”  What if we, um, beat up some monks and stole their robes and fled into the forest?  I ask at the nearest village for where some monks are.

GM: “Oh, the white friars?  You can find them at the inn, where they are foreswearing their faith.”

CARABAD: Well, if we stole their robes maybe they wouldn’t care enough to chase us.

CLEGIS: Fugitive… fugitive… hmm… Clearly we can’t ride TOWARD the forest, because we can’t find anyone to chase us.  But what if we rode our horses BACKWARDS into the forest?

GM: What?  I’m confused.

CARABAD: I get it!  A fugitive runs into the forest because he’s being chased.  If we ride into the forest without being chased, we would be not-fugitives.  But if we rode the horses backwards, we would be not-not-fugitives.  Which is the same as being fugitives!  Oh.  Oh, that is nice.

GM: I’m still confused.

CLEGIS: The trick is, we’d know we were doing it, which may defeat the purpose.  So we would have to wear blindfolds.

CARABAD: This is . . . This is the greatest plan anyone has ever come up with.  It makes my calling the queen a pig look really stupid.

GM: Look, it says all you guys need to do is make DEX rolls to enter the forest.

PLAYERS: ………….Oh.  So what do we do with the blindfolds?

Eventually Sir Carabad found a golden apple to give to Lady Madule, though Sir Clegis had to behead an innocent man due to one of those oaths you swear to forest spirits.  Forest spirits apparently have a really good legal team, because nobody ever thinks to break the oath.

Beardsley: The Achieving of the Sangreal

a moment of glory

Also, Sir Carabad heroically led the armies of the Grail Castle against the forces of King Death, and was married to Lady Madule by the Fisher King himself.  You had to be there.

Beardsley: A Devil in a Woman’s Likeness (right half)

satan’s racehorse

Dan’s main character, Sir Hervis, went on a quest to rescue his sister, who had been kidnapped by the notorious Sir Bruce sans Pitie, the most notorious knight in England, who makes a custom of kidnapping damosels and then riding off on his infernal steed.  Sir  Hervis was accompanied by the prideful Sir Pellandres.

GM: “Aye, I’ve seen his horse, it’s as fast as the Devil himself!”  The peasant crosses himself superstitiously.

HERVIS: Hmm.  Even if we find Sir Bruce, it won’t do us any good because he’ll run awayand we can’t catch him.

PELLANDRES: Ah!  But what if we make him come to us!  I shall pridefully boast that I have the fastest racehorse in all of Logres.  We shall challenge him to a race!  And when he arrives, smite him!

HERVIS: He still might run.  I’m going to bury miniature crucifixes along the outside of the race track, so that when the devil-horse arrives, it’ll be trapped inside.

PELLANDRES: Oh, a devil-horse, that’s right!  ….I am going to pridefully spread rumors that my horse is a saint.

GM: How can a horse be a saint?

HERVIS: It’s a creature of habit.

PELLANDRES: How indeed?  I will train it repeatedly to kneel at the altar of the local church, at night.  And then once it can do so reliably, show it off to the peasants at Sunday mass.  (Rolls dice)

GM: “Gadzooks!  That horse is a saint!”  “Someone ask the horse to heal my scrofula!”  “To think I shoveled the saint’s waste!  I will keep it in a reliquary!”

HERVIS: Big thumbs up on this plan.

PELLANDRES: How can Sir Bruce ignore such enticing bait?  An angelic horse on a race track against his demon horse!

GM: …So the day of the race comes, and Sir Bruce is there.  He’s this enormous guy, bigger than both of you put together, and his horse breathes fire from its nostrils, and lightning sparks strike when its hooves touch the ground.  It’s like he’s revving the horse’s engine at NASCAR.  “Who’s ready to race!”

HERVIS: I’m going to wait at the edge of the track, and strike him if he strays outside the crucifix line.

PELLANDRES: “I shall race you, varlet!  Upon my holy steed!  What ho, the signal!”  (rolls dice)

GM: There’s the fanfare to begin – your horse think’s its time for mass and kneels.  Sir Bruce’s horse is off like an arrow…

Long story short: Hervis, Pellandres, and their ally Sir Emerause (much love, Greengoat, come back to us) tracked down Sir Bruce, killed him, and rescued Hervis’s sister and Bruce’s other captives.

Beardsley: How Morgan le Fay gave a Shield to Sir Tristram

a young knight should not fight an entire army by herself

We forgot this rule of thumb when Lisa joined us to play the Saxon shield-maiden Aethelflaed.  Our characters, with over a decade of advancement, just barely survived the final assault on Rome–Sir Carabad himself was nearly cloven in half by a Byzantine cataphract.  But poor Aethelflaed never stood a chance and was cut down like chaff.  This was kind of our fault, because we had never used the “fight defensively” rule and had forgotten it existed; this might have kept her alive.

Beardsley: How King Mark and Dinadan Heard Sir Palomides (right half)

eight year old children should not fight wild boars

The notoriously prideful Sir Pellandres went boar-hunting with his retinue in France, during the winter of one of Arthur’s European campaigns.  When the knight fell off his horse, his eight year old son was unable but to laugh at him.  Angrily dismissing the rest of the men, Pellandres insisted that he and his son would find and slay the boar by themselves.

That was not best practice.  Though they are a speedbump in games like Dungeons & Dragons, wild boars are pretty horrible beasts by Pendragon standards.  In contrast, unarmored eight year old boys are speedbumps.  It . . . did not end well, and I believe Pellandres went mad for a while until he wound up in a monastery.

Beardsley: How La Beale Isoud Nursed Sir Tristram

that damn pregnancy table

Despite several years of marriage, Sir Carabad and Lady Madule did not produce any children.  Inevitably Sir Carabad went mad again (stupid Sir Gawaine!), so I had to adventure as Lady Madule, the pagan enchantress, for a few years.  (The joke here is that Lady Madule is a pretty horrible person, insanely loyal to Morgan Le Fey, cruel, and deceitful, and only married Sir Carabad in the expectation that he’d die and she could officially own her own lands.  Which everyone but Carabad could see.)  Inevitably Lady Madule was imprisoned and slated to be burned at the stake for witchcraft.

By this time Sir Carabad had recovered, rounded up the grieving Sir Pellandres, found Sir Hervis, and they all rode off to rescue Lady Madule.  This goal was achieved!

PELLANDRES: Have the two of you ever, y’know, consummated that marriage?

CARABAD: Gee, I guess we’ve been at war for two years, and then I was mad for a few years… I suppose not.  She has headaches a lot, and says that the stars are not properly aligned.

PELLANDRES: You are never going to get a better chance than right now.

HERVIS: If you invoke a passion, that’s +10 on the childbirth table.

GM: Passion rolls shouldn’t apply to the childbirth table!

HERVIS: Why not?  Look, the first ten results are, “No child born.”  If you get a +10 from a passion, you skip that and she’s automatically pregnant.

GM: ….Oh, what the hell, sure.

PELLANDRES: And the baby and mother will only BOTH die if you roll a 1.

CARABAD: Well, we’ve been married 5 years and I wooed her for 5 years, and I really do need an heir at this point.  I’m rolling my Romance by describing how many adventures we’ve had to rescue her and save her life.  (Success!)  You are all deafened and repulsed by the animalistic groans coming from the pavilion.

PELLANDRES: I’m curious, you should roll now to see what happens in winter phase.

CARABAD: (rolls dice; comes up 1: “Child and mother both die”)  (I practically rend my clothes in frustration)

GM: Oh man, I love it when horrible things happen to Sir Carabad.

CARABAD: Wait!  I’ve got that holy salve my father left me!  I can save them!

GM: Only one of them.  You should roll your Love (Family Line) versus your Love (Lady Madule) to see whether you save your wife or your infant child.

CARABAD: (rolls) ……………Wow.  Um, I am going to name my daughter Madule.  Thus endeth that whole ten year story arc.  Wow.

So next year we are riding into Hell to see if we can redeem Lady Madule’s soul.

Beardsley: Excalibur in the Lake


devious wessex trap

I am currently engaging in a real-life hexcrawl of Jeff Rients’s Wessex campaign setting.

map copyright Jeff Rients

Now, Jeff made some mapping errors, I think.  Hexes 0113 and 1004 are both hilly as fuck, 1004 especially.  Most of the line between 1310 and 1403 isn’t as hilly as depicted.  But also, the roads are wrong.  Here is a rough sketch.

Also, the City of Christminster, in addition to housing the invisible college of wizardry, perhaps with Roger Bacon as its master, harbors Wagon Pixies who set cunning traps for outlanders.  To wit:

The discerning eye will notice that, due to the slope, you not only have to find Reverse, but have to be going really fast to overcome gravity.  But if you mis-shift into First Gear, that means you will smash into the lower car.  If, however, you manage to get into Reverse, you will race back into the wall.  Either way, you must Save versus Liability at -5.

Maps of an Anarchy-period keep, Tintagel Castle, and Merlin’s Cave to follow next time I get wifi, which may be after I get back.


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?

Past Adventures of the Mule

May 2022

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