Saturday, December 27, 2014

My Top 10 Role-playing Games Ever (in 2014) #3

I my last post I wrote about the folly of the generic role-playing game; in contrast the next entry in my top ten has a laser-like focus that brings with it a heap of restrictions and despite that Pendragon remains a superb game. Expansions and later editions would change some details but in the core game everyone plays a knight, everyone plays a man, and everyone plays a goodie; this should feel restrictive but it doesn't, in part because different backgrounds allow for even four English knights of about the same age to feel varied, and in part because that's the game, that's the genre, and if you've sat down to play at all then you've probably already made that first leap. Unless your gamemaster is a duplicitous sort. If so, sorry.

The game uses the familiar Chaosium system -- albeit using a d20 instead of a d100 for some reason I've never understood. -- and as a result the rules are simple and intuitive. Aside from the use of the wrong dice there are a couple of other major differences between Pendragon and its parent system, the first of which is its heavy use of personality mechanics.

Everyone is assumed to uphold the laws of chivalry to some extent so D&D style alignment is more or less irrelevant; you can be Sir Evil of Sodshire but you'll still act with honour, at least most of the time. Instead the game uses a system of virtues and passions, the former a set of twinned characteristics like Pious and Worldly and the latter stronger motivators like Loyalty, Love, or Hate. The virtues give an idea of what a knight's personality is like and a knight can claim bonuses if certain virtues have a high value; the downside is that with more extreme values comes a more extreme personality, which could cause trouble for the knight. Passions are the knight's core beliefs and they can be used to bolster a roll -- a character could use his Loyalty to Arthur give him a bonus on his Sword skill, for example --but in doing so he runs the risk of going mad if the roll goes wrong. It's a simple system and allows for a fair bit of player choice while also emulating the bonkers romanticism of the source material; if you want a game about blokes in plate armour falling in love with the wrong women and chopping up Saxons while in the grip of a mindless fury, then this is for you!

The other big difference between Pendragon and not only its Chaosiumish cousins but the wider world of rpgs is that down time between adventures is given as much importance as the adventures themselves. I had played plenty of games in which characters did stuff between adventures, whether it was researching old and musty spellbooks or investing in shady nightclubs, but Pendragon was the first rpg I ever played that used distinct phases of the sort common in board or war games. Such ideas are much more common now with games like Mouse Guard and The One Ring out there but when I first encountered the idea that role-playing games about adventuring knights could be about more than the adventures it seemed revolutionary.

Yes Pendragon's knights go on adventures but they only do so in the summer; the rest of the year they're attending feasts and tournaments, or running their estates, or wooing ladies, or raising children, or -- as always seemed to happen to us -- cross-breeding horses with their fey counterparts to create super hybrid steeds that could gallop at absurd speeds but only at night. We were teenagers.

Player-knights retire and die -- while adventuring, while hunting, or even in their sleep -- and Pendragon allows for play to continue through the characters' family trees; if a knight hasn't fathered a son -- or daughter in disguise -- then they're bound to have at least a brother or cousin to carry on the family name. In Pendragon a player doesn't run a single character but a whole family and the challenges the dynasty faces can be just as exciting as riding off to fight some Saxon raiders or investigate a magical tower. Again, the idea of playing an entire family line was something that I'd never encountered before -- unless one counts Paranoia -- and it was an exciting innovation.

I first encountered Pendragon in the mid 1990's and I have played it only a few times over the years decades but it was so much fun and so different to anything else I've played before or since that I have nothing but fondness for it. I would probably play it more often if the blasted thing stayed in print for more than five minutes every five years but even so my personal character sheet has a "Love (Pendragon)" score of at least 16 on it.

(The pictured first edition box was donated by friend of the blog Zain -- thanks Zain! -- but is alas incomplete so I am still looking questing for a playable copy.)

Next: grim and perilous adventure!


  1. Great game. Wish I had more time!

  2. Just picked up the recent Humble Bundle for this. Thanks for the write-up!

    1. You're welcome! I hope you enjoy it as much as I do!

  3. Used to play this loads in the 1990s. Until we go distracted by Shadowrun...