Classic RPG Review #17: Pendragon

3rd edition softcover
by Greg Stafford
1990 Chaosium Inc, Oakland CAL USA

If you ever wanted to play an Arthurian knight, if you ever wanted to quest for the holy grail, if you ever wanted to joust and be chivalrous yet merry, then Pendragon may be the game for you. Pendragon isn't called Pendragon for nothing, it's because of Arthur Pendragon.

If you're not wondering what on earth Pendragon means by now, I'll tell you anyway. It means Lord of the Dragons, and it was the epithet of Arthur's father Uther. This doesn't mean the game is full of dragons however. Not at all. You can play knights, and that's pretty much it. I guess Greg Stafford just figured Pendragon would make a cool name for the game.

And I guess he's right. Greg Stafford by the way is one of my favorite game designers since “Basic Fantasy Role Playing”. Somehow he manages to provide a lot of flavour and atmosphere for his games without burying you under rules. Fortunately that's true here too.

Pendragon sports a simplified Runequest system, using a d20 instead of percentile dice. The Runequest increments of 5% each are one twentieth anyway. So why not play with a d20? It's much easier, as you don't have to multiply by 5 all the time. Also, there are less rules and mechanics than in Runequest. That's good. Less good is that the few game rules that are left, are kind of hidden between the huge amounts of flavour and background. In three columns of text per page. In over twohundred pages. You'll either need the index, or just make up the rule yourself.

New is the emphasis on role playing. And rules provided to help you. You don't quest for experience points by bashing monsters, but you quest for glory points by doing chivalrous deeds. Joust foul black knights, woe and marry the right lady, fight battles, own land. Glory makes a knightly noble tick, and sets him apart from the common folk. Also, when you design your character you have extensive rules for generating your family, family history and coat of arms. Now that's background!

Then you have personality traits and passions. Chastity, energy, honesty, cruelty, valorousness, and so on. Whenever you are challenged on a trait, the game master may require you to roll. So if you're particularly lustful, you may end up seduced all the time. If you're rather chaste you'll end up with more glory but will probably never get laid. Passions are more about your loyalties and what you'll get emotional about. Love your lord, wife or family up to the point that you'll go to hell and back for them? Or do you hate immigrant Saxons so much that you'll do much the same? Again you may be required to roll a d20 or lose control.

Lose control. That's exactly what I do, and at the same time do not like about this well meant mechanic. Using traits and passions may jog uptight hack 'n slashers and shy newbies out of their apathy. They may in fact help players to start role playing a bit. But at the same time the traits may provide yet another rule to hide behind. Oh, wow, sorry. I just missed my temper check. Now I'll have to bash you. In practice I've seen more of the latter, alas.

In Pendragon, you don't just play a knight really, but you play a dynasty. One of the goals in the game is to get married. To a non player character, it is assumed, which can be generated randomly, but it's better to find a special lady. And after getting married you try to obtain a healthy son. You can roll for this every year, randomly getting more children as you go along. And once your heir reached the adult age of 21, you can continue playing your son!

Rolling on tables does not only help you find who you can marry to, or what happens to your children, but it also generates quite a few opportunities for adventure. There even is an explicit section for solo adventures. So, if you like you could play Pendragon entirely as a solo game. Rolling up history and adventure possibilities for your character, and then playing them out with yourself as you go along. You'd almost guess that Stafford figured you'd be left without fellow players fairly often. I wonder where the guy lived while he wrote this. Alone in the outback?

How does it play? Personally I never got beyond rolling up a character and doing a few solos. So I guess I also lived in the outback when I first had the game. But I did hear of the game being played by friends. And they seemed to like the flavour and mechanics. But they also did not play for very long, perhaps finding it hard to build an actual campaign with just knights. Personally I'm still curious. It's not the first on my list as a system. But I would play if someone asked. And that's saying a lot. Meanwhile I'll page through the book for inspiration. It's very good for that too.

(rules are elegant, fairly simple, realistic, d20 based, simplified RuneQuest set of rules, with additional rules to focus on role playing, solo play and generating character history)
(Arthurian legend has always been a strong source of wonder and inspiration, and Pendragon is full of historic and literary facts, names, characters, creatures, heraldry, events, peoples and so on, for today's standards the only thing you may miss is colour print throughout)
(starting up the game and generating your character is easy, as is building your background with tables, but actually playing adventures falls slightly short, adventures being reduced mostly to encounters, battles and jousts; also there is little room to play anyhing but a knight, as even a damsel is not a real option)
(a true to theme Arthurian role playing game with a simple, yet effective set of rules, massive backdrop and strong suitability to solo play)

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