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[Chaosium] Pendragon: Where It All Began - design journal by David Larkins

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By David Larkins, Pendragon line editor.

A new edition of the Pendragon RPG is coming! The intention of this series of design journals by Pendragon line editor David Larkins is to trace the path of development, starting in the early 1980s and culminating with the forthcoming new edition of the Pendragon RPG, which will be first to be wholly published by Chaosium in a quarter-century.

For this first article, David takes a look at where it all began...


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The path to the forthcoming 6th edition of Pendragon formally began on April 5th, 2010, when Greg Stafford sent out an email to his team of collaborators (whom he referred to as his “Household”) outlining his vision for the new edition—his Ultimate Edition.

When Greg passed away far too soon in 2018, he left behind decades’ worth of material, both paper and digital, tracing the game’s development. Most of these archives are currently in my care (from where I sit, I can see the shelf of vertical files containing dozens of detailed “hundred maps” of every county in Logres…), but there was one artifact that has remained out at Greg’s home in California: the original two-volume set of Le Morte d’Arthur from which Greg first began formulating the mechanical underpinnings of Pendragon.

Thanks to Greg’s friend and longtime Pendragon contributor David Zeeman, I recently received photos of the marginal notes Greg scribbled all those years ago, some of which (for there are many) are shared here for the first time.

We see Greg zeroing in on the core concepts of the game in Caxton’s Preface (“For herein may be seen noble chivalry, courtesy, humanity, friendliness, hardiness, love, friendship, cowardice, murder, hate, virtue, and sin. Do after the good and leave the evil, and it shall bring you to good fame and renown.”).

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Then, as the tale unfolds, we see Greg marking incidents in the book as he refines his ideas for Traits and Passions, and how those mechanics will work in play: “Mark gets a passion”; “Jealousy”; “Lancelot fumbles Energetic”; “Madness strikes Lancelot”.

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Some terms are already there (Heraldry, Awareness); others are still in development (Injustice, Courage).

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The note that brought me the greatest delight had to do with Greg’s thoughts on Queen Guenever: “Gwen is honorable & I’ll kill anyone who disagrees.”

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At some point, I will be writing about the revised Great Pendragon Campaign project currently under way, which includes a more detailed and nuanced treatment of the queen in the overall story arc. I’m tempted to include that bit of marginalia as a quote somewhere in the text…

For now, though, look forward to more details in forthcoming articles on the development cycle of 6th edition, including Greg’s journey from that first announcement back in 2010 to how we’re carrying on his vision and legacy today.

Until then, “Let us win glory for our king, who will reward us with honors and lands; and the devil take the hindermost!”
 

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MGibster

Legend
Whenever I talk about a game tailored to its source material Pendragon is the example I use. It's just such a great game. Thanks for a little insight into its creation.
 



Obmug

Villager
From a French canadian point of view "Le Morte d'Arthur" is quite funny, it should be "La mort d'Arthur" in French.
If it were modern French, sure, but the title was written in 15th century Middle French which differs in any number of ways.

ETA: I swear I didn’t mean this to come across as pedantic as it now seems in retrospect, LOL.
 
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Mercador

Explorer
If it were modern French, sure, but the title was written in 15th century Middle French which differs in any number of ways.

ETA: I swear I didn’t mean this to come across as pedantic as it now seems in retrospect, LOL.
Yeah, it's possible, I haven't thought of that. You aren't pedantic.
 

Mercador

Explorer

Since morte (or mort) is a feminine noun, French would require the article la (i.e., "la mort d'Arthur"). According to Stephen H. A. Shepherd, "Malory frequently misapplies le in titular compounds, perhaps on a simple sonic and gender-neutral analogy with 'the'". Stephen H. A. Shepherd, ed., Le Morte Darthur, by Sir Thomas Malory (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), 1n.
 


Michael O'Brien

Hero
Publisher
FYI, over on our 'Chaosium Interviews' thread, David Larkins gives an expert's perspective on the new Green Knight movie, how it relates to the original poem, and how it relates to the Pendragon TTRPG:

 

werecorpse

Adventurer
The note that brought me the greatest delight had to do with Greg’s thoughts on Queen Guenever: “Gwen is honorable & I’ll kill anyone who disagrees.”

David Larkins seems to be suggesting that this note in the book shows what Greg Stafford thought of Queen Guenever. While I’m sure he is right based on other conversations my first thought was that this note was summarising what Greg believed were the views of a character of the books; probably Lancelots as this does seem to describe his passionate position and the actions he would take to assert/defend his views.
 

Mercador

Explorer
FYI, over on our 'Chaosium Interviews' thread, David Larkins gives an expert's perspective on the new Green Knight movie, how it relates to the original poem, and how it relates to the Pendragon TTRPG:

Just to add something; if you haven't see the Green Knight, go see it, it really worth it even it's a bit bizarre.
 

The note that brought me the greatest delight had to do with Greg’s thoughts on Queen Guenever: “Gwen is honorable & I’ll kill anyone who disagrees.”

David Larkins seems to be suggesting that this note in the book shows what Greg Stafford thought of Queen Guenever. While I’m sure he is right based on other conversations my first thought was that this note was summarising what Greg believed were the views of a character of the books; probably Lancelots as this does seem to describe his passionate position and the actions he would take to assert/defend his views.
I tend to concur.
The combination, however, of their flawed and fallible human nature plays out against their honor... None of Lancelot, Guenever, nor Arthur thought to cover it up once discovered; honor prevented conspiracy. Honor then further required it be "dealt with"... and it ruined all three.
Honor is a two edged sword, and Greg's timeline makes this so painfully clear...
 

Michael O'Brien

Hero
Publisher
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Design Journal #2: Bringing the Light in Sixth Edition​

By David Larkins, Pendragon line editor.​

A new edition of the Pendragon RPG is coming! The intention of this series of design journals by Pendragon line editor David Larkins is to trace the path of development, starting in the early 1980s and culminating with the forthcoming new edition of the Pendragon RPG, which will be first to be wholly published by Chaosium in a quarter-century.
Sword Hand by Andrey Fetisov


The path to the forthcoming 6th edition of Pendragon formally began on April 5th, 2010, when Greg Stafford sent out an email to his team of collaborators (whom he referred to as his “Household”) outlining his vision for the new edition—his Ultimate Edition.

Here is how Greg's fateful email began, in part:

My Fellows,

Thank you for accepting my offer to help out on the new King Arthur Pendragon 6th edition, and its supplements.

Yes, that is correct. I plan to release a new edition of KAP. The core book and game, the “real” KAP, is about adventuring knights….

The innovations and changes will actually be few in number…. My desire is to have a set of rules that provides everything that a player needs to play an adventuring knight, unencumbered by anything but his goals and passions….

Now, one thing is that I want to be sure that the core game functions of itself, and also anticipates all of the below….


Greg then goes on for several pages, outlining his tentative plan for the sixth edition line. Looking over this today, it is striking to see how, even though the particulars changed quite a bit in the development, the central vision has remained essentially unaltered over the past ten years. Greg’s desire to make the core rules into a focused resource for playing adventuring knights and build out from there remains a key facet of Chaosium’s vision for the products to come.

The key word is modularity: start with the adventuring knight and add other facets to the game to taste. (I will talk more about how we intend to realize this vision in future Design Journals.)

As reviewed in last month’s installment, Greg first started to work on what he would come to call his magnum opus in the early 1980s by conducting a close reading of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and other Arthurian texts and then adapting the Basic Roleplaying system around his notes.

Four editions of the game would follow (plus a phantom “2nd edition” that was never actually published). Each edition saw tweaks and changes based on Greg’s evolving understanding of the literature and how he wished to represent it in the mechanics and setting of Pendragon.

For sixth edition, Greg’s objective was to consolidate all that work into a coherent whole, one that reflected his latest understanding of what the game should be, which he achieved with the completed first draft of the rules shortly before his passing in 2018.

It is notable, for example, that the game’s subtitle evolved from first edition’s “Game of Quest, Romance, & Adventure” to sixth edition’s “Game of Valor, Honor, & Tragedy”.

This is not to say that there is no room for questing, romance, or adventure in the new edition—far from it! But over time, Greg came to understand that the mechanics and setting of Pendragon tend to produce gaming experiences of a much deeper, emotional timbre. Characters are tested. Some show Valor in the face of despair. Some hold to Honor when all else is lost. Yet, as we all know, Arthur’s dream is fated to end in Tragedy. How we navigate these challenges—finding out what kind of knight you really are, and building a legacy of a brighter tomorrow—is the heart of the Pendragon experience.

One of my favorite bits of text from Greg’s sixth edition manuscript is a little essay he wrote entitled “Bringing the Light”. I will close by sharing it here in its entirety:

The medieval Britain of history, inherent in the old literature, was a dismal, violent, and cruel place, with outdated standards of behavior. Setting the game in this world was a deliberate choice, for alongside the dark overtones comes hope for a brighter tomorrow.

In the campaign, the Gamemaster paints a harsh background as the reality within which the characters move. Initially, the Gamemaster’s characters are merciless and brutal. Player-knights may choose to remain in that unenlightened realm of history—this kind of behavior does not penalize them, but neither rewards them. But they also have a choice to join the struggle to improve the world. Their actions can stand as shining lights of exceptional behavior, breaking the old ways and preparing for a better realm.

The story of King Arthur is about the struggle to improve life. With his faithful knights, he manifests the dream of a better world. The game dramatizes this heroic effort in its play. Great rewards go to those who struggle to improve the kingdom.

King Arthur changes the world, slowly to be sure, but in general for the better. Bloodthirsty warlords, selfish sorcerers, and even the environment itself in the form of the Wasteland, all conspire against these changes. The Player-knights are an important part of the struggle for the betterment of Britain.

The improvements in the lives of women and commoners are hallmarks of Arthur’s efforts. Ladies make great gains both socially and legally over the course of his reign. Women may become knights if they wish, gain the power to choose their own husbands, and, whether knight or noblewoman, eventually may inherit their due estates and take care of them without a warden. Commoners are among King Arthur’s earliest supporters, and he even forms Parliament to give them a place to exercise their powers alongside the clergy and lords.

The Gamemaster decides how much resistance hinders these changes. You may of course decide on presenting a fantasy realm that is better than our modern world, with fairness, justice, and goodwill everywhere. However, that attitude significantly alters the stories, and what the stories mean. The best balance comes when the world is at first medieval, reactionary, and reluctant to change; yet slowly yields under the influence of the Player-knights and their allies in Arthur’s court working to create a luminous realm.


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Art from the forthcoming 6th edition of Pendragon
—TOP: Andrey Fetisov
—BOTTOM: Katrin Dirim
 

Michael O'Brien

Hero
Publisher
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By David Larkins, Pendragon line editor.​

A new edition of the Pendragon RPG is coming! The intention of this series of design journals by Pendragon line editor David Larkins is to trace the path of development, starting in the early 1980s and culminating with the forthcoming new edition of the Pendragon RPG, which will be first to be wholly published by Chaosium in a quarter-century.
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As hinted at in last month’s Pendragon Design Journal, this time I’m going to talk a bit about one of the key concepts behind the new edition: accessibility through modularity.

Full disclosure: I started my personal journey with the game with 4th edition, a massive tome crammed full of character options, setting detail, rules for magic, and much more. As excited as I was to begin my Pendragon journey, I initially bounced hard off that brick of a book, as it were.

Eventually, I managed to dive in and haven’t looked back, of course. When The Great Pendragon Campaign came out, I immediately started using it in my then-current game. Here, again, was a weighty tome, almost challenging the Gamemaster to attempt to run the whole thing—a monumental and, for many, intimidating task!

We’re excited about bringing Pendragon to new audiences of gamers, and we understand that although most everyone in the English-speaking world (and many beyond) have heard of King Arthur and the Round Table knights, most folk don’t know very many details about this world, much less how to approach gaming within it. Large books, like those I just mentioned, make the game a harder sell than it should be.

That is why, for the new edition, we’re presenting Pendragon in a much more approachable format by breaking it down into leaner, more accessible books as much as possible.

The 6th edition Core rulebook will be a complete role-playing game, of course, presenting rules for character creation, combat, Traits and Passions, the Winter Phase, and enough information about the setting that any group could run Pendragon campaigns using nothing but this volume. But it is also intentionally easy to pick up and learn, accessible to newcomers and intended for use as straightforward table reference during a session.

The companion Gamemaster’s book goes into much greater detail, both in terms of the setting during the Boy King Period—the nominal starting Period for 6th edition—but also things like tournaments, feasts, hunting and falconry, big battles, diplomacy…and that’s not even counting the chapters presenting statistics and details on famous knights and ladies of Arthur’s realm and the many foul beasties that lurk in darkened woods and on lonely moors! With this book and the Core Rules, the enterprising Gamemaster has everything they need to craft their own Arthurian adventures for years to come.

Some groups want more, and the third volume of the core set presents that, with rules for estate management and castle-building (as well as sieges), more detailed rules for tracking your characters’ extended families and entourages, and various ranks and titles to one day attain. This is the book for the would-be barons and warlords in the group, as well as those who enjoy a bit of world-building in their game.

Whether buying just the Core Rules, or two volumes, or all three, you are guaranteed a rich Pendragon game experience.

— ABOVE: some of the pregen characters from the Pendragon Starter Set, currently in development. Art by Mathilde Marlot and Laurent Miny.
 

Michael O'Brien

Hero
Publisher
pendragon-design-journal.png

By David Larkins, Pendragon line editor.​

A new edition of the Pendragon RPG is coming! The intention of this series of design journals by Pendragon line editor David Larkins is to trace the path of development, starting in the early 1980s and culminating with the forthcoming new edition of the Pendragon RPG, which will be first to be wholly published by Chaosium in a quarter-century.
As we have seen in earlier installments of this very Design Journal, Pendragon 6th edition was over a decade in the making. Greg Stafford dubbed it his “Ultimate Edition.” So what exactly did he mean by that?

To answer that question, let’s spend some time this month and in the next few installments looking at how he tweaked and modified the core mechanics of the game, starting with how Traits and Passions work in 6th edition.

The Trait and Passion systems, it is fair to say, stand as Pendragon’s most notable mechanical innovations. For those of you less familiar with the game, a quick review: Traits define your character’s personality in terms of values and behavior, and are expressed as a set of 13 matched pairs, while Passions measure your character’s strongly-held beliefs and emotional triggers. It is through the twin engines of Traits and Passions that your Pendragon character accomplishes great and memorable deeds—or gets in over their head… Either way, much dramatic fun ensues!

Longtime Pendragon fans will be pleased to know that Traits and Passions work much the same as always. Traits, in particular, have hardly changed. (Why mess with perfection?) A critical success or fumble on a Trait roll may, at the Gamemaster’s discretion, now grant a +5 bonus to a subsequent Skill roll, but for the most part Greg strove for increased clarity in describing when to make Trait rolls and how to apply them in the game and left things at that.

Directed Traits function the same as always, though it is now possible to acquire Obsessions—a sort of hyper-Directed Trait (such as Fear and Jealousy) that significantly boosts a particular Trait (Cowardly and Suspicious, respectively).

Passions, on the other hand, received a few mechanical tweaks, all reflections of Greg’s thinking with regard to the types of boons and banes generated by Passion use in the game.

First of all, if you have played earlier editions of Pendragon, you will note the appearance of some new Passions: Station, for example, and Chivalry. Other Passions that were introduced in 5th edition’s supplemental material, such as Homage and Fealty, are now elevated to core status.

More significantly, Passion values now interact with each other to an extent. Passions are divided into four courts, or categories: Fidelity, Fervor, Adoration, and Civility. The total value of all Passions in a court may never exceed 40. So, for example, if you have two Hate Passions of 15 and one Love Passion of 10 (all of which belong to the Court of Fervor), that equals 40 points total in that court—meaning when any of those three Passions go up a point during the Winter Phase, the Player must reduce one of the other two by one point as well in order not to go over 40.

This cap on Passion totals is offset by the fact that Passion values in 6th edition tend to start a little lower than previously. This is because the penalties for a failed Passion roll now scale with the value of the Passion. A particularly low Passion is unlikely to cause Melancholy or Madness on a failed roll, and in the event of such a fate the duration of the affliction is much shorter, so lower Passion values are not the problem they were in earlier editions.

All of this points to a couple of Greg’s design goals with the new edition: get folks to focus on a smaller number of character-defining Passions, and to encourage rolling for inspiration even with lower-rated Passions.

Madness or Melancholy may also be triggered in 6th edition through game events. For example, losing the source of a Directed Passion (that is, a Passion that refers to a specific person)—a beloved spouse dies, you are banished by your lord, and so forth—can easily trigger a crisis that leads to years of wandering in the wilderness as a mad hermit!

Finally, in another change those familiar with earlier editions of Pendragon will note, the bonus conferred from inspiration has gone from +10/+20 to +5/+10. This means that a regular success on a Passion roll significantly boosts a character’s chances of success, but a critical success essentially guarantees the win, particularly against non-inspired opponents. (Oh, and tied critical successes in combat now inflict regular weapon damage against each opponent.) The one exception to this is the Adoration Passion taken by romantic knights; this Passion, which may be invoked at any time by simply thinking of the Beloved, grants a +10 bonus on any success! This helps place the ideal of Romance on par with Chivalry and Religion in desirability—knights will very much want to find a chaste amor to moon over! (Failed Adoration rolls, it should be noted, do cause a special kind of Affliction called Misery in addition any Melancholy or Madness incurred.)

Over the course of years of revision, refinement, discussion, and playtesting, all of these changes, and may others, left Greg satisfied that he had at least achieved his final vision for the game, a process started so long ago in his marginalia of Le Morte d’Arthur. The one system he hadn’t quite nailed down to his satisfaction at the time of his passing was a revised Battle mechanic, and we’ll be taking a look at how we took his notes and rough draft and shaped it into a new system in a future installment.

Next month, however, we are going to put a spotlight on the other core Pendragon mechanics of Honor and Glory.

Until next time!

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ART: 'CRYING KNIGHT' BY ELEONOR PITEIRA​

 

I recently started playing Pendragon for the first time (jumping in at the deep end; straight into The Great Pendragon Campaign!), and am really enjoying it so far, even only a couple sessions in.

Enjoying these insights.
 

Michael O'Brien

Hero
Publisher
pendragon-design-journal.png

By David Larkins, Pendragon line editor.​

A new edition of the Pendragon RPG is coming! The intention of this series of design journals by Pendragon line editor David Larkins is to trace the path of development, starting in the early 1980s and culminating with the forthcoming new edition of the Pendragon RPG, which will be first to be wholly published by Chaosium in a quarter-century.
Happy Winter Phase! For this, the final Pendragon Design Journal of 2021, we are taking a quick look at how the new edition handles two of the game’s most definitive Statistics: Honor and Glory.

Honor​

For existing players coming into the new edition, Honor carries the most revisions and changes of the two. This isn’t to say Honor is greatly changed. It may still be invoked as a Passion, though it exists outside of the Passion Courts system discussed in Design Journal #4. Honor may only be decreased through a knight’s own action or inaction, as always, but it is here that we find Greg putting in a lot of work on defining the nuances of Honor and how knights and ladies may lose or gain it.

As with much of Sixth Edition, these are extrapolations from elements already found in the game, given increased weight and additional applications.

For example, we are introduced to the concept of Public versus Private Honor. Honorable or dishonorable acts do not fully affect a knight’s Honor value unless they are witnessed or talked about. A perfidious Player-knight who slays their brother, for example, would normally lose 10 points of Honor for fratricide. However, if the murder were committed in total secrecy (say in the middle of a wild moor or dark forest) with no witnesses (or at least none who were suffered to live…), our murderous knight’s Honor would remain unchanged in the view of the public, allowing the Player-knight to go on living a lie.

It is impossible to hide from ourselves, however, and so our fratricidal Player-knight would make a note on their character sheet that their true Honor value is actually 10 points lower, and all rolls are made against that value.

If and when the truth of the murder comes to light, the Player-knight then adjusts their Honor to the true value it has been all along; if this is enough to drop the number below the minimum threshold for knighthood, they would experience their degradation in status at that point in addition to any other in-game consequences coming their way.

In a similar vein, Sixth Edition provides details on losing Honor through inaction (when confronted with dishonorable acts and failing to do anything about it), through accusation (whisper campaigns can be hazardous to one’s social standing!), through the shame of failing to live up to an oath, and through conflicts with one’s Traits and Passions.

As always, it is harder to gain Honor than it is to lose it, but rules are provided for increasing the value by acting in accordance with honorable Traits and Passions, by defending one’s good name and disproving scurrilous rumors, and by holding true to vows and oaths.

Glory​

Glory remains largely unchanged in its design and application, as befits such a simple and elegant system. The old “bonus point” gained from crossing a 1,000-point threshold is now called a Prestige Reward, as it can be applied in ways other than modifying your character’s Statistics. Most notably, a Prestige Reward may be used to ensure healthy childbirth and guarantee the birth of an heir!

Veteran Gamemasters will be pleased to see that the guidelines for Glory awards are the most comprehensive ever published, including clearly defined Glory from Standard of Living, conspicuous consumption, and social events such as feasts.

Lastly, by way of a tantalizing preview of a future Design Journal, certain Glory award benchmarks have been revised, perhaps nowhere more notably than in the new Battle system. Battles are still a great source of potential Glory, but how your knights earn that Glory differs notably from older versions of the Battle rules.

2022 - The Year of Pendragon​

Before I wrap up this month’s Journal, I would like to take a moment to thank everyone who has expressed their excitement for the forthcoming edition over the course of the year, and for your patience as you await its rollout. We have taken our time in making sure that Sixth Edition does justice to Greg’s vision and memory, and I cannot wait to share with you all the greatness he has left us. As we move through the production cycle towards completion, rest assured that as soon as we can be positive of a release date, you will hear about it almost in the same instant!

Regardless, I am looking forward to making 2022 “The Year of Pendragon”!

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ART - "ROUND TABLE" BY ANDREY FETISOV​

 

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