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Pendragon: A Game Design Masterclass

We all have our favorite games, but even the ones we love often have flaws we overlook or imperfections we happily house rule. However, there is one game that I find myself unable to find any flaws in. In my opinion, it is the greatest RPG system ever designed, a masterclass in simple and clean mechanics that smoothly support the game setting. I’m talking about Greg Stafford’s King Arthur Pendragon RPG.

King_Arthur_Pendragon_-_1st_Edition-_Box_Front_Cover.jpg

In this article I’ll attempt to back up my rather sweeping statement, and in doing so point out just how cleverly written the Pendragon system is. It’s a game that every game designer should take a look at, as there is a lot to learn from it, from one of our most talented (and now sadly missed) game creators. If you are new to Pendragon I hope this gets you to learn more about it, and ideally play it at some point.

Just in case you are new to Pendragon, I should start with a little detail about the game itself. Pendragon appeared in 1985, in one of Chaosium’s gorgeous boxed sets. The cover by Jodie Lee and interior illustrations by Lisa A Free are among some of the best RPG artwork of the time, and one of the things that initially attracted me to the game. Since its creation, Pendragon has passed through five editions and three different companies, but has remained largely unchanged. The main exception being the 4th edition, which adds a magic system that is potentially usable by player characters.

In Pendragon, your characters are all knights in the era of King Arthur. However, by the era of Arthur we don’t just mean the time he was king. Pendragon comes with a vast and detailed timeline that takes characters from the time before Arthur, through his reign and finally to the tragic fall of his kingdom. Obviously, if your characters are experienced knights by the time the boy-king takes the throne, they’ll be pretty frail and old by the time Mordred leads his army against an aging Arthur. So as characters age they retire, handing the title of player character on to their sons and daughters. When player characters get old and retire, they can leave their land and even some of their reputation to their eldest heir to continue and advance their dynasty. As the campaign progresses, the player characters become richer and more powerful, perhaps even advancing to the Round Table.

Given the character potential of the Middle Ages, a game where you only play knights might seem rather limiting. However, what this allows Pendragon to do is focus on one particular type of character and tailor each adventure specifically for them. While you are a little stuffed if playing a knight doesn’t appeal, there are options for playing ladies and sorcerers, and even female knights (which may be ‘historically inaccurate’, but it’s all based on a myth anyway). However, there is plenty for each knight to do and plenty of variety to create different characters with different strengths.

Pendragon is often (and rightly) lauded for its generational legacy campaign, and its attention to detail in the setting and the myth. The rulebook divides the Arthurian cycle into different phases, and the later supplement ‘the Pendragon Campaign' breaks it down to a year by year guide for all manner of adventure. This alone makes Pendragon quite a unique and well crafted game, making it possible to miss just how good the rules system that underpins everything is.

So, what’s so good about the system? For a start, it is a simple system that doesn’t complicate as situations get more involved. Many simple systems end up adding all manner of bonuses and exceptions to cope with complex actions, but Pendragon manages to avoid that. To make a skill roll you roll 1D20 and have to roll less than your skill level. Roll your actual skill level and you have made a critical. A 20 is a fumble, so when you hit a skill of 20 you can’t fumble anymore. When you are in a contest, such as a swordfight, you need to roll under your skill, but higher than your opponent. Statistics (Strength, Dexterity, etc) make little difference to skills, so everything is encoded in one simple roll, although you might allow the odd bonus or penalty if you like.

Combat is extremely elegant, and not much more involved than a simple opposed roll. You decide who you are fighting and both of you roll your weapon skills. The highest result wins, as long as it is a successful roll and that character gets to damage their opponent (the loser doesn’t). This means you resolve two character’s actions in one roll and do away with any need for initiative, defense pools and actions.

Fighting multiple opponents? Then you have to divide your skill between them, but as evenly or unevenly as you like. So if you have a skill of 16 you might decide to have an effective skill of 8 against each of your two opponents. But you could instead focus on one, applying a skill of 12 against them and leaving only a skill of 4 against the other. Once more, simple, effective and smooth, the system allows players a certain degree of tactics when outnumbered, and ensures large groups of weak bandits can still be a problem for even an experienced group of knights.

In another nice twist, if you don’t beat your opponent (and get to do damage) but still made your roll, you managed to bring your shield into play to gain its armor rating against the damage you are taking. Damage is particularly interesting, as it is not defined by the weapon but the character. Each knight has a damage rating and the weapon they use only modifies that (with a standard sword being the average unmodified roll).

While combat and the basic system is impressive, another unique factor in the game are personality traits. Each character has a collection of 13 positive traits (Chastity, Valor, Honesty etc) and their opposites (Lust, Cowardice, Deceit etc) all rated like skills. The Gamemaster might call for a character to make a roll using one of their traits at any time, such as rolling gluttony to see if they overindulge at a feast. Fail, and they fall to their vice, succeed and the player can decide what the character does.

This might seem like roll playing rather than role playing, but the opposite is true. Many players refuse to let their characters fall to their darker urges, or do things that might embarrass their character. They won’t want to run from a battle and will insist they resist the wiles of a beautiful witch, just because they don’t want their character to fail. But in reality, not everyone is a brave and honest as they would like to be. Even the bravest knights have moments of cowardice, and the most virtuous fall to their vices on occasion. By forcing a personality roll, knights must prove themselves worthy or fail to do so. So if you don’t want your character to be a coward (for instance) you need to put more points in valor. As traits can be improved just like skills, your character can literally learn to be a better person as the game goes on.

However, this doesn’t mean the character is OK with their failings. Often, falling to a vice is what generates role play as the character realizes what they have done and feels a need to atone. For instance, the characters decide to go out for the night, insisting they are only going to have one or two drinks. Then, failing their trait rolls, they get horribly drunk and wake the next morning with a hangover and a feeling of shame for all the things they barely remember doing that night. When the players complain that ‘they said they weren’t going to get drunk’ the Gamemaster replies ‘you said you weren’t intending to, but that’s not what happened’. Just like real life. Given that many of Malory’s Arthurian tales involve knights falling to their desires and having adventures to restore their honor and virtue, it fits the setting perfectly.

While statistics (Strength, Dexterity etc) don’t count towards skills, they still serve a purpose. Statistics are used to calculate the knight’s base damage roll, hit points, how big a wound needs to be to count as a major wound and when they might fall unconscious etc. While statistics are important, the values don’t make a lot of difference unless they are especially high or low. This is an advantage, as when characters get old their statistics begin to drop, slowly but surely. Eventually this is what forces them to retire, despite their expert skills, as their damage and hit points quietly go down until they just aren’t fit enough to carry on adventuring.

I could go on for longer about the simple elegance of the Pendragon system, but I should let you discover the rest for yourself. In my game we constantly think of situations we expect the system to have a problem coping with. But time and again it proves us wrong, no matter how obscure what we are trying to do is. John Wick once coined ‘Stafford’s Law’ that states “If you think you have just had an amazing idea for an RPG system, chances are Greg Stafford thought of it first”. Nowhere is this more evident than in Pendragon.
 
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Andrew Peregrine

Comments

Banesfinger

Explorer
I really enjoyed the base mechanics of Pendragon (as pointed out in this article). Things like combat, skill checks and even personality traits went smoothly (although we rarely used the latter).
However, the "generational" campaign/game quickly lost its "fun factor" with my players: it became more of a spreadsheet/accounting exercise as you had to tax your vassals, upkeep your manor, track your descendants, etc. This can be fun in a video game (like the Sims), but without a computer to do all the tracking/math, it quickly bogs down play if your players prefer 'action' instead of 'resource management'.
 

SMHWorlds

Explorer
Many of these mechanical ideas show up in later games. Pendragon has had a huge influence on design even outside the Chaosium paradigm.
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
Love the traits and passions system. And they wouldn’t be that hard to port into D&D either.
 

Von Ether

Explorer
I still hold up Pendragon as a "less is more" exemplar of design and world building. It shows that you don't have to have a kitchen sink approach to either aspect of the game. And when they mesh perfectly, the result can be just as fulfilling and intriguing.

...
However, the "generational" campaign/game quickly lost its "fun factor" with my players: it became more of a spreadsheet/accounting exercise as you had to tax your vassals, upkeep your manor, track your descendants, etc. ...
The generational aspect was hit with my players, but not for the reasons you'd expect because the game also had a "What was the PC was up to while the player skipped a session," chart, complete with some XP.

That made Pendragon the game that would not die, as players would drop in and drop out over the years (both in game and the real world.)

And since I allowed for lady knights, it was mostly female players that kept coming back. Pretty cool experience overall for everyone.
 

Arilyn

Explorer
We really enjoyed this game. As a female player, I would play a male knight, or a lady knight bucking tradition, which is always fun. We had a blast with the winter activity tables. And, yes, playing through generations is amazing. The game really captures the feel of the Round Table and Arthurian knights. Definitely, a favourite.
 

wishfrog

Villager
When we first played through the Great Pendragon Campaign, I set aside my copy of Mallory's Morte d'Arthur because I didn't want to know the details of what would happen. One session stands out in particular: the queen is to be burned at the stake. Some of our party stood with the king, and some put themselves between the torches and the queen, and fought their fellow knights. Not because we were supposed to, but because the game system and the material of the GPC drew us into the myth. Yeah, an RPG psychopomp!

Having run through it three times now, start to end, when I pick up my Morte d'Arthur and read it now, it's not dry material. I am continually asking myself, Why did Sir Balin do that? What was it like for Sir Bors when he reappeared at court? Would I strike the lady down? Was Sir Pellinore satisfied? The text is alive, because I was (am) part of it...I enjoy a lot of role-playing games, but I have never been transformed by one. And that is the true magic and genius of Pendragon.

Thanks for that article, that got me to stop, and think about Pendragon, and remember all the good times.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
However, the "generational" campaign/game quickly lost its "fun factor" with my players: it became more of a spreadsheet/accounting exercise as you had to tax your vassals, upkeep your manor, track your descendants, etc.
One need not let one's knights have more than a couple manors. And, with all three editions in PDF, you can pick your detail level. And forget not that a manor is supposed to provide a knight... if the PC fails to serve both lieges, he can be stripped of one or more...
The event roll can also be streamlined...
 

Schmoe

Explorer
This is an outstanding article/review. Your description of the game sounds fascinating, and a game that I previously had no interest in now actually sounds like something I'd really like to try. The combat sounds both simple and elegant, and I can certainly see how the traits would lead to more compelling and interesting role-playing. Thank you!
 
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I have a copy of Pendragon 5.2 that shipped with Prince Valiant when I backed the Kickstarter for the latter. I haven't played it (I did play a session or two of Pendragon way back in the day at a convention) - we use the map and price list for our Prince Valiant game.

I know that Greg Stafford thought of Pendragon as his masterpiece but I personally think maybe Prince Valiant deserves that accolade. I would certainly recommend that anyone who is interested in the themes/tropes of Pendrgaon but put off by its mechanical heft take a look at Prince Valiant instead.
 

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