One Module, Every Game: King Arthur Pendragon, 5th Edition

Well, unlike some other projects I’ve engaged in the past, this one got off the ground and the first game was played yesterday. I finally settled on The Frozen Fingers of Midnight for the module, which, on hindsight, was a good decision.

The structure of the module is fairly simple, it has room for improvisation and the structure is solid. It also doesn’t ruin the adventure if the players have played through it previously, especially if the adaptation throws a few curveballs their way. D&D adventures aren’t solved the same way as Call of Cthulhu adventures, and so on.

It was fun translating the module. I opted for an epic Grail Quest route with the module, turning the taverns and manors and boathouses of the original into castles. Skelg the Ripper, the cursed Ulfen warrior from the original, was a king of old laid low by a curse cast by an evil baron after the king and the baroness had a tryst. Skelg, in the Pendragon version, was unable to rise from his bed, yet unable to die. The woman, Lady Natalya, was trapped inside an icy mountain floating in a lake behind the baron’s castle.

How’s the Game, Then?

First of all, some observations about the game. Pendragon is very, very good, and very, very different, surprisingly so, from pretty much everything else I’ve played. The key to this difference is the Traits and Passions. You know how in fiction and occasionally mythology, certain characters behave just like they were player characters in D&D? You know, audacious and smart types, who have wildly varied and odd skillsets, limited survival instincts and a knack for creating and then executing completely unexpected and oddball plots that, against all logic, tend to work.

The characters in the Arthur legends are never like that. They have a concept of honour and a code of conduct so deeply ingrained in their behaviour that they will happily work against their own interests and even die or kill friends in duels if that’s what they perceive honour to demand. They mope about, go insane every once in a while and waste away with love. Greg Stafford, the writer of King Arthur Pendragon, comments on Sir Tristram that the way the guy charges into battle every time he sees another knight without so much as a how-do-you-do, the only possibility is that he’s seriously nearsighted and can’t identify the other knights, and every time Greg portrayed Sir Tristram as an NPC, he kept squinting and peering at the players.

The way Pendragon handles this is with the Traits. The Traits are a bunch of sliding scales between different virtues and vices. You’ve got Chaste/Lustful and Energetic/Lazy, and so forth. All of the values between a pair add up to 20, and most are around 10/10 or 13/7 or something along those lines. When they’re 16/4 or even more unbalanced, though, it’s really a significant character trait. The thing here is that in certain situations you must roll a Trait check, and the success or failure of that check limits what you can do in the situation. This often rules out the smart way to deal with the situation. For values of 16 or above, you always roll when it would apply to a situation, for lesser values you have more control.

It’s an interesting mechanic, and though some players are hostile to even the suggestion that someone would take away any control over their character, I think it works. Fortunately, I had no players like that, either.

This isn’t going to be a full review of the game, since I haven’t even read the whole rulebook, but I’ll point out some other things I noted:

First, the one bad thing. The rules are rather unclear and the book could really do with a single page where the basic dice mechanics are explained in a simple way – what to roll, what number you’re aiming for, what’s a critical, what’s a fumble, when do they matter, how bonuses work. The data is there, but it’s now hidden in two or three different places in the rules chapters.

That, there, is my only real complaint. Apart from that, it’s all good.

The game sets out to do one single thing, specialises in it, and then does it very well. Pendragon is meant to run a campaign through the years of King Arthur’s reign, from 485 to 566, from the wars of King Uther Pendragon against the Saxons to the Battle of Camlann and its aftermath, a total of 81 years. The entire time period is covered by the huge brick of a book that is The Great Pendragon Campaign. There also appears to be a campaign supplement named Saxons! for what I believe is the fourth edition of the game that runs a seventy-year campaign from the arrival of the Saxons to the isles in 449 to the Battle of Badon Hill where King Arthur kicked their asses for good in 518. I expect that with sufficient megalomania, the two might be strung together for whopping 117 years of campaign.

There seems to be a recommendation that one year is covered in each game session, so with weekly games (hah!) that campaign would go well into its third year, and even with just one or the other, you’re looking at nearly two years of playing. If I were to start such a game over here with my university group, we’d all have our PhDs before we were done. The thing with The Great Pendragon Campaign, I suppose, is that more than, say, a Paizo adventure path, it desperately needs to be finished. Everybody knows the story already, and they want to be part of the big fight at the end. They want to go down swinging at Camlann.

Sirlarkins over at the RPG Corner has been posting Actual Play reports from his solo Pendragon game that I’ve been reading with great interest. Playing with your significant other as the only player seems to be a good way to finish the campaign at some point in the future.

When you play in a Pendragon campaign, your character will die. In the best-case scenario, I’d expect that at the very least two PCs of every player will give up the ghost. I think four is the likely average. Not only is the combat system positively murderous, but there’s also the sheer length of the campaign, spanning generations of knights. This poses certain challenges for the levelling system and experience mechanics. In most RPGs with this much mechanics, you can expect your PC to get steadily better. Here, they get steadily better and then they die. The next PC, however, gets an inheritance of titles and all that rot and a measure of his predecessor’s Glory. Also, because the Enchantment of Britain kicks technological advancement into overdrive, their starting gear will be a few centuries more advanced than dad’s starting gear.

Of course, this raises the issue of actually making those replacement characters, for which there is the Winter Phase. Because nobody is dumb enough to go a-questing in the winter – it’s pretty cold to ride in armour – the characters are assumed to spend the winter or at least part thereof at their manor or castle or the King’s court or wherever. During Winter Phase, you roll for how much you get in taxes from your peasants, how much of it goes onward to your lord, and if you’re married, whether there are any new children. For existing children, you roll if they survive.

Family and heredity is important in Pendragon. This is also seen in the character generation system, which has a lifepath system for the Salisbury knights, whom the game assumes PCs to be. Except it’s not their lifepath, but their grandfather’s and father’s. From the year 440 when King Constantin is murdered by his own guards to 484 when your PC’s father will (at the latest) die at the Battle of Eburacum, you track their exploits in the various battles and events of history and their accumulated Glory, some of which will then pass on to you. Personally, I think this is an awesome system. I love lifepath systems in general, and this is one of the best I’ve seen.

Finally, as an English major and a literature geek, I must comment on the depth of research that has gone into this thing. Greg Stafford knows his stuff, and it comes through in the writing. The world of King Arthur Pendragon is a fusion of different sources, from the old Welsh myths to Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur to Boorman’s Excalibur. It brings them all together into a cohesive whole and does it well. There’s also a scenario based on Rossetti’s poem “Goblin Market”, which I appreciated.

In Actual Play

In translating the module from Pathfinder Society to Pendragon, the first decision I made was to have the action happen in the year 556, during the period when the Knights of the Round Table were questing for the Grail. I did this because I feel that period is most iconic of the stories of the Round Table, and because it gave me a good excuse to have the PCs out in the sticks, looking for adventure and talking to strange men living in the woods. Then I turned the decidedly D&D-y milieu and plot into something more fairytaley, something more suitable for King Arthur’s knights.

Though I dearly love the lifepath character generation, in order to save time I just wrote up the four pre-made PCs from the rulebook. The party thus comprised of the well-rounded average knight, the Roman Christian Sir Berel; the burly pagan huntmaster Sir Pelogres the Lively; the strong and scarred warrior Sir Maurel; and the learned courtier Sir Morganor the Just. The characters were distributed randomly. Sir Berel and Sir Maurel were played by two guys from my regular Rise of the Runelords group, while Sir Pelogres’ and Sir Morganor’s players came through the RPG club. In the adjacent room, another GM was running his homebrewed fantasy game.

They were out looking for the Grail, and were referred by a strange hermit in the forest to go to the Forest of Arden, wherein slept in his hidden castle a great king of yore.

So, off they went and found the Grey Dog Castle. It was a squat little castle, with stout fortifications – very defensible. All around it grew an impenetrable thicket of wild roses. (It was here that I actually made an error regarding my notes – I meant the rose bushes to grow around Castle Bengeirr, as that encounter in the original featured the Rosy Fingers Tavern. This was a very interesting error when you look at the story as a whole and I wonder if my subconscious wasn’t playing tricks here.)

After some debate and an attempt by the reckless Sir Maurel and Sir Berel to cut their way through (“DEUS VULT!” *slash, hack*), aborted by Sir Morganor, scandalised about the possibility of ruining a king’s garden, the knights decided to circle around the castle and look for a way through the thicket. (Here, Sir Maurel rolled for Reckless, which he had at 16, succeeded, and started hacking. Sir Morganor failed his Arbitrary roll and had no choice but to intervene. I’m not sure we played the Traits as they’re supposed to be played, but the players caught on quickly and it resulted in good gaming, which I suppose is what matters.) This they did not find, but the keen eyes of Sir Pelogres discerned a place where the thicket was less thick and they could cut their way through with more ease. They tied their horses to a tree and started hacking. As they passed into the thicket, though, they noticed the bushes were growing back behind them. Foul witchcraft!

Eventually, our brave gardeners broke through the roses and briars and faced the high gate of the castle. Sir Morganor blew his trumpet to announce himself and knocked on the gatekeeper’s door, which opened. Out of it stepped a huge, two-headed man, tall enough to look a mounted knight level in the eye. With his two mouths he announced himself to be the guard of Grey Dog Castle, and that none may enter. Though Sir Morganor introduced himself and his party most courteously, the dialogue soon reached an impasse and more direct methods were required. Sir Morganor, awed by the monster, cowered, while the rest of the knights charged in. The creature fended them off with its club for a moment and its thick hide turned aside Sir Pelogres’ spear as well as Sir Berel’s sword, only Sir Maurel drawing blood. Then, it smacked its club into Sir Pelogres’ face with such force that its weapon broke, and Sir Berel and Sir Maurel used the opportunity to strike their blades deeply into the creature’s flesh (I divided up its weapon skill against multiple opponents as 11 against Sir Maurel and 1 point each for Sirs Berel and Pelogres. It critted against Sir Pelogres and fumbled against Sir Maurel, which I interpreted to mean that it bashes Sir Pelogres’ face in and its weapon, not being a sword, breaks. The other two knights both rolled criticals.)

The giant was down, and begged for mercy, which it received, and lay there bleeding. Sir Berel, wise in the ways of healing, patched up the bleeding Sir Pelogres, whose nose had been bent and broken by the force of the strike.

The knights, having thus bested their foe, entered the castle and met with an ancient man introducing himself as Tyrios, King Skelg’s faithful squire, who had lived here in Grey Dog Castle with his master for all the years of his curse. He took them up into the highest tower to meet the King, a large, broad-chested man who was decrepit in his old age and whose flowing white beard covered the bed. He was not asleep, but after the courtesies had been exchanged, he told that he had made the mistake of loving another man’s wife and had been cursed for his crime. He could not die, but was too weak and infirm to rise from his own bed. He had lain thus for long centuries.

Sir Morganor considered such a long punishment as unjust, as no man has the authority to condemn a man thusly – that power resides with God, and God alone. Vengeance is His, and no one else’s. The knights received directions to the castle of Baron Bengeirr. Bengeirr was not wholly a man of this world, and thus could be expected to still be alive – which he indeed was, as they discovered after having ridden for two more days under the canopy of Arden Forest. Castle Bengeirr was less a defensive fortification than it was a display of the wealth and authority of its owner; all tall spires and turrets. The knights also spied a lake behind the castle, and in the lake, a mountain of ice.

They approached the castle and announced themselves, were greeted, and then let in. They met with Baron Bengeirr, who welcomed them to partake of his hospitality. Upon hearing of their quest, he said he could not help them as he had sworn an oath and it was King Skelg’s fate to suffer. However, compelling arguments from Sir Morganor turned the Baron’s head, and he agreed to joust them, and if he could be unhorsed, he would agree to lift the curse. The best rider among the knights would face him.

Sir Morganor immediately announced this to be him, which Sir Maurel took exception to (Sir Maurel’s Lance skill was 15, Sir Morganor’s 14), justifiably proud of his skill at arms. Sir Morganor would not back down, and thus, it was decided they would compete amongst themselves for the honour of tilting against Baron Bengeirr. Sir Maurel and Sir Morganor tilted against one another four times, each time Sir Maurel landing a solid blow on Sir Morganor, whose lance he avoided altogether or managed to shrug off his shield. In the end, Sir Morganor, though still not unhorsed after four tilts, conceded Sir Maurel to be the superior warrior.

The next day, Sir Maurel faced Baron Bengeirr, and almost anticlimactically, unhorsed the vaunted knight on the first tilt, emerging unscathed himself. Baron Bengeirr was true to his word, however, and told them to get his wife, Lady Natalya, from the mountain of ice in the lake.

This they did, and rowed a small boat inside the mountain to a cave where Lady Natalya sat on the floor, still as beautiful as when King Skelg had first loved her. Indeed, such was her beauty that it profoundly stirred the loins and the hearts of the brave Salisbury knights as well. (I here used a mechanic – which I’m not entirely sure was a good idea – lifted from The Great Pendragon Campaign’s first encounters with Queens Igraine or Guinevere, where the knights first roll Lustful if they will gain a Lust (target) Passion and if they fail that, a Chaste roll for whether they will gain an Amor (target) Passion. Sir Berel managed to get Amor (Lady Natalya), while both Sir Maurel and Sir Pelogres got Lust (Lady Natalya). Sir Morganor the Just was too dedicated to the Grail quest to notice such worldly things.)

Though Lady Natalya requested that she be taken to her beloved Skelg, the knights first attempted to take her to Baron Bengeirr, her lawful husband. Bengeirr, however, refused to meet with them. Sir Morganor, out of respect for the law and tradition of the land, attempted to manipulate the situation, and first dragged out of the castle servants the knowledge of which way Baron Bengeirr’s bedroom windows faced, and then requested that before they travel to Grey Dog Castle, she sing to them, on the shore of the lake.

The ploy did work, after a fashion, and Baron Bengeirr was seen in the window before turning away from his singing wife. As they rode away, from a far hilltop the knights could see the castle’s flags and pennants being lowered as a sign that the lord of the castle was dead. (I have no idea if they did the half-mast thing in medieval England. Probably not, but it does work as a cultural shorthand and I was pulling stuff out of my ass for most of the session. Normally, I prefer to prepare, prepare and then prepare some more, and me running a game with only two pages of notes is almost unheard of.)

Now, the Lusts kicked in. The best trackers of the group were Sirs Pelogres and Maurel, whose new goal in life was to get under Lady Natalya’s dress. They attempted to accomplish this by Flirtation rolls, which they failed miserably, and then by leading the whole party around in circles in the forest to buy more time and opportunities with her. This led to more failed Flirtation rolls as the knights were smooth as sandpaper and Lady Natalya was completely oblivious to their advances. Once Sir Morganor and Sir Berel figured out what the two men were up to, there was a confrontation, and words were had, the knights nearly coming to blows over the Lady’s honour. In the end, Sir Maurel and Sir Pelogres acquiesced and they made for Grey Dog Castle with haste.

At the castle, they took Lady Natalya up to the highest tower where King Skelg lay, and she rushed forth to embrace her love. Immediately, a measure of vitality returned to King Skelg. Though still old and decrepit, he now found the strength to rise up from bed and stand on his own two feet, and requested that he be helped downstairs, to the chapel. He also told the knights that when he had still had his kingdom, many centuries ago, the Grail had been to the north, in the castle of the Fisher King. (Never mind that the Grail hasn’t been in existence for all that many centuries, let alone in England. Then, this is myth and timelines only need to sorta match.)

At the chapel, the King kneeled in front of the altar to pray, while the knights and Lady Natalya stayed behind. A golden light from the heavens lit the King’s kneeling form, and over his head the knights beheld the translucent, dreamlike form of the Holy Grail, the object of their quest. Then, King Skelg collapsed, dead, but with a smile on his lips. The knights were infused with a new sense of purpose for their mission, having been blessed with such a vision of the cup of Christ.

However, there still remained the issue of Lady Natalya, but at this point, lest we be subjected to knights killing their brothers in the house of the Lord, we fade to black.

Thoughts After the Action

An early decision I made in my preparations was to just pare down the rules to their essentials. No Winter Phase, no mass large-scale combat. Pendragon isn’t a light system by any means and trying to understand all of it myself for just one session, let alone foisting the full weight of it upon the players, would have been inadvisable. Thus, we used the bare minimum – skills, combat, traits and passions. We probably also interpreted some of them wrong and forgot others, but that’s the way it goes when you’re learning a new system. You make mistakes, then you read the book some more, learn how things really go, and play right from then on.

The Baron Bengeirr encounter was a bit anticlimactic, and I probably should have made him tougher. I used the stats for Average Knight from the rulebook. With an unfamiliar system, it’s difficult to gauge what the PCs are capable of defeating. The initial encounter with the giant (Small Giant stats) showed the lethality of the combat system, though.

The adventure was a bit of a railroad, partly because of its heritage and partly because of how I rewrote it, but I think Pendragon is more forgiving of such sins than other games. The default mode of play is to go through a set series of historical events without being able to significantly affect their outcome, and most of the really interesting content comes from the players characters’ interaction with one another and reactions to the conundrums posed by their Traits and Passions.

Content-wise, I think I may have made the module a bit too fantastical. However, the players seemed to like it, and I feel I managed to keep the style appropriate for the legends of Arthur, “Lady of Shalott” and perhaps Grimm’s fairy tales.

I didn’t actually notice until after the game that my slight error with the notes and the placement of the roses had pretty firmly made this a retelling of the story of Sleeping Beauty, except with switched sexes. Man, I’m so postmodern I subvert fairy tales without even noticing.

It was a good session and a good game. Next month, though, I’ll try for something lighter, or possibly more familiar. Possibly Dark Heresy. I’ve actually run a handful of sessions of Dark Heresy, but I’m hardly a master of the system yet. I’m also a big fan of the setting, and I feel it’d work as a good lead-in for Rogue Trader. Of course, I’m also open for reader suggestions.

2 thoughts on “One Module, Every Game: King Arthur Pendragon, 5th Edition

  1. I can verify, he’s not pulling these things just out of his sleeve! I was one of the players and it was a good one.

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