[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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Michael O'Brien

Hero
Publisher
I watched the “What is planned for Pendragon 2022” YouTube but I couldn’t figure out how many books (or box sets) of 6e rules there would be before the GPC was reprinted and what they would each cover. Could you enlighten me? Is it on your website somewhere?
The final production schedule and formats are still being worked out.
 

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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.
Last time, we took a look at how 6th edition Pendragon handles that most important knight’s duty: combat. But there is more to a knight’s life than fighting, and there is a place where the stakes are just as high as on the blood-soaked killing fields: the courts of the nobility.

Gossip - Mathilde Marlot
The key to success when navigating the halls of power is Geniality. First introduced in the 5th edition supplement Book of Feasts, this is an entirely subjective Statistic. Everyone’s “base” Geniality is 0. Unlike Glory, Geniality is ephemeral, constantly rising and falling. Unlike Honor, Geniality has nothing to do with one’s inherent worth. Rather, it is strictly external: what are you wearing? How richly are you living? Was that you who dropped that witty bon mot? Or did you just inadvertently insult the king?

Your character’s Standard of Living is the best way to raise Geniality. The wealthier you appear, the more prestigious your titles, the more favorably you are viewed by your noble peers. Beyond that, all bonuses to Geniality are transitory: with the appropriate outlay of treasure, you can get yourself dolled up with gold and jewels for that all-important appearance before the king; the Fashion Skill is indispensable here. And feasts (discussed in more detail below) carry the potential for massive Geniality bonuses—or shame and ignominy!

So what does Geniality get you? Simply this: Geniality acts as a modifier to your character’s Appeal (APP) Characteristic and most Courtly Skills (specifically Compose, Courtesy, Dancing, Fashion, Flirting, Gaming, Intrigue, Orate, Play Instrument, and Singing). It also acts as a modifier to everyone else’s Recognize Skill when applied to you.

Geniality reflects the highly subjective, hierarchical courtly environment. Does being genial make you a better chess player, then? No, but it makes it more likely your opponent will let you win in order to curry favor! However unjust, a rich lord, well-dressed and possessing noble titles, will have his voice heard (Orate), his petitions granted (Courtesy), his attention returned (Flirting) with much greater success than an ordinary household knight.

Where Geniality truly shines, in my opinion, is the fact that all nobles possess it: knights and ladies alike. A big bull of a knight might be an unstoppable force in combat, but a Genial lady (or more courtly knight, like Sir Tor) will run circles around him at court. Queen Guenever is the most Genial of all, and through this she wields tremendous influence and power. The core materials focus primarily on the application of Geniality to the lives of knights, but we do have plans for a future supplement that will go into courtly play in much greater detail.

As mentioned, feasts are where Geniality truly shines. If you are familiar with the Feast Deck from the Book of Feasts, you may be pleased to learn that 6th edition uses a similar approach. A basic set of feast cards will come packaged with the forthcoming Pendragon Starter Set, with a larger deck available separately. If you already own a Feast Deck, you can simply use that. There’s even a simplified card-less system included with the feasting rules for groups without access to a deck, or for those who prefer not to use cards.

For those unfamiliar with the Feast Deck, each card presents an event that occurs during a feast, usually involving just one character but sometimes affecting the whole group. (These latter event cards can have unexpected knock-on consequences! In a recent session in my current campaign, one of the Player-knight’s call for “More Drink!” led to serious embarrassment for another Player-knight, who ended up getting drunk and causing a scene.)

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Many cards carry a bonus to Geniality, often with a chance to increase that bonus further with a successful Skill or Trait roll—or turn the bonus into a penalty with a failed roll. As the feast goes on, the Player-knights track their Geniality as it rises and falls. At the end, these scores earn a little Glory, and potentially much more if a Player-knight has earned enough to exceed the feast’s Geniality Threshold, meaning they are remembered as a highlight of the evening by all in attendance (and earning a more significant Glory award). Naturally, the larger the feast, the harder it is to hit that threshold. Royal Feasts more or less require you to start with a high base Geniality from your station for there to be a chance at exceeding the threshold, whereas an equally-opulent lord or lady attending a feast is all but guaranteed to be the standout guest.

Glory from feasts is all well and good, of course, but perceptive readers will have noted that, with the potential for stacking Geniality bonuses, feasts are hands down the best venue for courtly maneuverings. From Intrigue and Flirting to Courtesy and Orate, Player-knights and ladies can use feasts to further their ambitions in a variety of ways. But beware the temptations of too much drink, or an inviting smile, lest you end up humiliating yourself in front of your lord and peers, or even find yourself challenged to a duel over an affair of honor!

Art: "Gossip" by Mathilde Marlot
 

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’ve discussed before in this series, a knight’s primary duty is fighting for their lord. The ultimate expression of this comes in the clash of massed formations of warriors on the field of battle.

Every edition of Pendragon has featured a system for resolving mass battles, though this system changed and evolved over time. The new edition is no exception. In the month’s journal entry, we’re taking a look at how the new Battle System came together, and what players old and new can expect from the game experience.

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The new Battle System was actually the first thing Greg Stafford handed to me for feedback and development after he brought me on board as Line Editor. We agreed that the new system needed a play experience that flowed smoothly while also centering the experience of the Player-knights in the larger context of battle. A personal goal of mine was to combine the Skirmish and Battle rules of earlier editions, so that the same system would suffice for clashes of a couple dozen all the way up to huge engagements like Badon Hill or Camlann.

In terms of rules design, the Battle System (and its cousin, the Siege Assault System) easily took up the majority of my personal writing and development time as I worked on the core rules manuscripts. It was play-tested extensively, both with my own groups as well as groups around the world. The end result, I feel, is the best iteration of the Pendragon Battle System to date.

As with personal combat, battles now move quickly—it’s quite possible to run a large battle and still have time left for the rest of the year’s events in a typical 3-4 hour session. Every Player-knight’s Battle Skill now matters. Conflicts have a natural ebb and flow to them, interspersed with explosions of unexpected activity. Most importantly (to me, personally) is the shift of earning Glory in battle: merely showing up to a battle earns you a nominal amount (it is what’s expected of knights, after all); it is in the command of troops and the defeat of worthy foes that a knight truly rakes in Glory, just as it should be!

As with previous iterations, the 6th edition Battle System keeps overall events largely abstracted, and makes no attempt at reflecting the true realities of medieval warfare. This is battle as knights of the Middle Ages wished it could be: they are the stars, and all others tremble before their might! Archers? Peasants with long sticks? Pshaw, sir! Merely chaff to be swept aside as we ride for Glory, fighting corps-a-corps against our brother knights!

(Of course, this being Pendragon, there’s no guarantee against an upstart peasant scoring a lucky hit and severely hampering your knight’s day, but we’ll move swiftly on from that unpleasant thought…)

And it is in Encounters and Opportunities, the heart of the new Battle System, where the Glory of the fight lies. These are set-piece fights against selected groups of opponents (Elite Knights on Horseback, Saxon Berserkers, etc.), fought in a variable number of Combat Rounds. At the start of a battle, the Gamemaster assembles a list of Encounters and Opportunities appropriate to the makeup of the enemy force. A small skirmish might have just one or two possible Encounters, while a larger battle likely boasts a half-dozen or more.

(Gamemasters may write out these options as a literal list. I’ve also made Encounter and Opportunity cards which I’ve used in my own games, and we will be offering these for sale in themed decks, as well as a selection to be included in the Pendragon Starter Set.)

Each Battle Turn, the Gamemaster selects an Encounter from the list and presents it to the players. Each Player-knight then rolls their Battle Skill. If they succeed, they may add another Encounter from the list; a critical success generates an Opportunity instead—think of things like trying to capture the enemy battle standard, or raiding their baggage train.

If an Opportunity was generated, that’s what happens this Battle Turn. Otherwise, the Gamemaster rolls against the battle’s Intensity (generated at the beginning of the fight); they get to choose the Encounter if they succeed, otherwise leaving it up to the players to pick.

For example, in a fight against Saxons, the Gamemaster might select (or the scenario might dictate) a Saxon Berserker Encounter this Battle Turn. The Player-knights no doubt wish to avoid that particular meat grinder, and (thanks to three successful Battle rolls from the group) instead choose Saxon Huscarls, Saxon Ceorls, and Mercenary Knights. The Gamemaster fails the Intensity roll, so the players now have four Encounters to choose amongst. Reasoning that the Mercenary Knights offer the best odds for good ransom and the highest potential Glory awards, they select this Encounter. (Had the Gamemaster succeeded, they could choose from among the four Encounters as well—they are not necessarily bound to go with their initial selection if they like one of the players’ picks better.)

At this point, each individual Player-knight selects their posture for the Turn: Prudent, Valorous, or Reckless. (There is a Cowardly posture as well, but no self-respecting knight would choose this—rather it is imposed on them under certain conditions.)

The posture commits the knight to fighting a certain number of Combat Rounds against the chosen opponent. Being Prudent means only one round of fighting, but it reduces the group’s Morale (more on this in a moment); Reckless knights must fight three rounds, but not only boost their unit’s Morale but have the best shot at downing more than one opponent!

Morale is the crucial counterbalance in the new system. It is generated from the values of the Passions that most motivate each knight (one may be fighting for an amor, another for their lord, etc.) and all but guarantees that the Player-knights will not be constantly engaged in fighting. Rather, they will fight for two or three Battle Turns, then “retire to the rear” to regain their wind and have wounds bandaged up before once again hurling themselves into the breach. Encounters cause Morale loss—the tougher the fight, the greater the loss. As mentioned above, this may be counteracted by Reckless attacks, but unless everyone is acting Recklessly, eventually the Morale loss becomes too much. (And a whole unit of Reckless knights is not long for the world anyway…)

Thus we have the core of the Battle System experience: a balancing act between prudence and recklessness, always striving for Glory when not otherwise forced back, bloody and battered, anxious to rejoin the fight and start the cycle again. Even in the biggest battles, the focus remains on the exploits of the individual Player-knights, and the consequences of their choices on how and whom they fight as the battle progresses.

There are, of course, many other aspects to the battle system, such as mechanics for preparing for the battle, determining who won after a battle if the outcome was in doubt, how to handle Player-knight unit (or army) commanders, madness and cowardice on the field, and so forth, but I’ve gone on enough for one journal entry already.

Hopefully you’ve seen enough to get you excited for the new system! Next time: horses, of course!

Art: by Mark Smylie
 

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.
It is a notable oddity of the English language that our word for “mounted noble warrior” has nothing to do with horses. Every other European word for knight derives from the horse, whether directly (chevalier, caballero) or by implication (Ritter). “Knight” refers instead to the social status of the person who holds the title, in its original meaning of “servant.” (Interesting to note that the word for another legendary mounted warrior, samurai, has a similar etymology, but I digress.)

Nevertheless, the knight’s bond with their horse is evident in related words such as chivalry and cavalier that share etymological roots with the Latin-derived words for “mounted warrior” found on the Continent.

The etymology of squire is much more straightforward: derived from esquire (from the Latin scutum), the word may be translated as “shield-bearer”—a clear reference to the squire’s role as helper and companion to their knight.

I remember when I first started playing Pendragon that one of the features of the game that immediately told me this was going to be a different sort of RPG experience was the inclusion of spaces on the character sheet for tracking your knight’s warhorse and squire.

Certainly, the idea of companion characters/animals under the control of a player is not unique to Pendragon, but what I found fascinating is that everyone got not just one but two such companions right from the start! Although both squire and horse serve important mechanical roles in the game – which remain unchanged in the new edition – these vital companions also provide the Player-knight with opportunities for roleplaying and characterization.

Past editions gave squires a bit more love than horses when it came to fleshing them out. In the new edition, rules for generating squires and their skill sets, introduced in 5th edition supplements, are now folded into the core rules.

Furthermore, the rules for making a Player-knight in 6th edition always initially result in a 14-year-old squire, giving groups the option to start play right away, with everyone as Player-squires, or else quickly age up their character until they qualify for knighthood around the age of 21. There is therefore the option to create an even more fully fleshed-out squire using the basic character creation rules.

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But what of horses?

Here, 6th edition finally gives these noble beasts their due, including an entire chapter all their own in the core rulebook. Here we find tables and descriptions for all the mounts of the Boy King Period, along with their armor. Terminology for horse breeds and tack is covered, along with the significant mechanical differences between Combat and Non-Combat Trained Horses.

It is in the second half of the chapter that we are treated to a few simple rules that, taken together, really elevate the horse from a mere mode of transportation and weapon of war to a true companion, with their own unique presence.

First comes the choice of whether or not to ride a stallion: stallions require increased maintenance and training, and are harder to control than mares or geldings. The payoff is a bit of Passive Glory earned every year in recognition of your character’s superior Horsemanship, for that is what it takes to ride one into battle without handicap.

Then comes the question of coat and markings. Picking out the right sort (or having it gifted to you) is vital to every status-conscious knight. The most expensive color is gray, followed by bay, yellow, chestnut, and dun, with black as the least expensive. Pale horses are rare enough to seldom be available, but may be gifted by fairies. True white horses are so rare as to never be available for purchase, being bestowed instead as significant gifts or rewards.

White, gray, and bay warhorses grant a bit of Passive Glory so long as they are the knight’s primary steed; a knight who rides a white stallion receives 30 Passive Glory every year!

But what of that steed’s personality? Provided is an optional table where, with one or more rolls of a D20, you can quickly generate your horse’s quirks that render the creature instantly memorable. In my current campaign, one of my Player-knights has a Charger with the “Chowhound” trait, meaning it takes any opportunity to grab a bite to eat, even when inappropriate. The horse is affectionately named Mouth, and has seen his master through many a bloody battle and strange quest; his master, in turn, lavishes him with care and attention, even though he is by no means a rich knight, in an effort to keep the cold hand of the annual Horse Survival roll at bay.

I have personally witnessed excited Players happily blow their treasuries on the best breed of horse they can afford, and use all their leftover denarii on draping their precious steed in the best armor available. (This didn’t prevent another Player-knight’s horse from being swallowed whole by a terrible serpent, but the less said about that, the better.)

These rules do not apply just to warhorses, of course, and knights and ladies alike may delight in finely-bred amblers for their cross-country rides, or coursers specially bred for the hunt.

If you good folk are anything like nearly every group I’ve ever run Pendragon for, there are at least some among you who even now are contemplating the possibilities of maximizing Glory and cutting out the costly middleman by having your character embark upon a horse-breeding program of their own. And for that, you need look no further than the system which appears in the appendices of the Noble’s Guide, which presents a simple system for determining the offspring of dedicated breeding programs.

With the right resources, and a little luck, your Player-knight or lady may thus produce from amongst their herd a horse of truly outstanding quality. Best of luck, and may Epona look kindly upon your efforts!

Art: 'Boar Hunt' by Mark Smylie.
 

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.
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The Pendragon RPG is, at its core, a game of knights, and as such we have taken a look at the game from a personal, knightly level in past Design Journals. For this entry, we’re going to pay a visit to the Gamemaster’s Guide and zoom out a bit to discuss what we like to call “Arthurian acts.”

Arthurian acts are the elements that most often come up in tales of King Arthur and his knights. They represent an idealized view of knighthood and the world they operate in, and in many ways are what elevate the stories—and Pendragon by extension—beyond a more grounded take on medieval history and into the realm of legend.

We’re talking about things like tournaments, feasts, epic hunts; seduction and fine amor, the niceties of court politics and what happens when a cruel and arbitrary lord violates these. “Genre tropes,” as one might say.

For example, one thing I often find myself explaining to folks new to Pendragon is that, unlike in most other RPGs, having your character captured by an enemy is usually the more interesting choice. Many seasoned gamers balk at captivity, and rightfully so, for in most RPGs captivity represents a total loss of agency (and often your cool gear!). In Pendragon, the Arthurian act of captivity ends up driving the story in fun directions (and all being well, you get your stuff back at the end).

The section on captivity in the Arthurian Acts chapter talks about what a knight can expect when taken prisoner. This applies to Player-knights, of course, but also to Gamemaster characters that the Player-knights might take prisoner themselves. After all, claiming ransom is almost always preferable to outright killing your opponent, if you can help it. The text points out that, if you are clearly on the losing end of a fight (reduced to fewer than half your Hit Points, to put it in game terms), it is never dishonorable to seek quarter. The duties of both captor and captive are discussed…as are the story seeds that may grow from such a situation.

For example, the classic Arthurian development is for a lady of the captor’s household to help in freeing the prisoner(s). Sometimes her motive is love, sometimes it is political. A half-dozen story seeds such as this are laid out in the section, hopefully providing some food for thought to Gamemasters looking to make captivity fun and exciting for all.

Other sections discuss similar social mores that modern players often grapple with, such as how to visit a foreign court (and what happens once you’re there), or how to exercise soft power through diplomacy or seduction.
Book of Feasts

Speaking of courtly intrigue, a few years ago I wrote a supplement for Pendragon called The Book of Feasts, which formalized for the first time a system for running grand feasts (a staple of Arthurian literature) and putting them on par with other acts such as tournaments, hunts, and battles. Fans of the system that was introduced in that supplement will be pleased to know that a slightly revised feasting system is now included as part of the game rules. We’ve even written it so that you won’t need the Feast Deck to generate events…though the Feast Deck isn’t going away, either! You can use the existing deck without issue, and we have plans in the works to put out more card sets in the future, starting with a small deck in the Starter Set.

Of all the sections in the Arthurian Acts chapter, the one I’m personally most excited about is the bit on tournaments.

Everyone loves a good tournament scenario, but previously rules for running the events have been scattered through various supplements. Here, at last, we have gathered together as much as we can about using tournaments in your game: rules for quick tournament resolution, as well as lots of details on tournaments through all the Periods of the campaign timeline. We have a fun sidebar providing dozens of sample prizes to offer the champions, sourced from documents dating from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries—perhaps your knight will win a sword and pair of steel gauntlets, a golden rod topped with a ruby…or even a golden vulture!

The Master Tournament Table tells you everything you need to know about tournaments of all sizes, from Neighborhood to Regal, including the number of knights in attendance, the value of the prize on offer, the Glory for participating and for winning, and the cost and Glory from sponsoring a tournament. Detailed rules follow on how to run jousts and melees, including rules for joust scoring and special tables for when you fumble…or worse, when both knights fumble!

It’s getting close to a year since we started this journey through the many exciting facets of the new edition of Pendragon. Next month, we’re going to shift gears slightly as we begin to take a look at how we put together the forthcoming Pendragon Starter Set.

And we’ll also talk about what you can expect to find in the 2022 Gen Con Starter Set Preview!

ART BY MARK SMYLIE​

 

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