General Update

I haven’t had much to say lately, having a pile of work to do and a pile of gaming to amuse myself afterward. I’m in the vaccination cycle right now, so I’m hoping to be out and about more soon, especially if enough people can also get the same benefit. I might not be heading overseas this year, so I’ll be missing some of you a little longer.

My next review will be Precious Apothecary, although it might take me a while to get to it. I’m doing some deep diving on magical incantations involving the saints, especially directed at St. George and St. Helen, along with pulling together two books at once.

Among books received is Aaman Lamba’s new work Great French Occult Romances (see above), which he was kind enough to send. It includes the Red Dragon novel that I mentioned in my review of his previous work, plus other fictional texts from the same period.

I’m taking a break from the main text in order to continue to work on the illustrations, and to work on some of the background of Olivia Serres and Robert Cross Smith, a.k.a. Raphael. I’m also trying to wrestle with some ideas about when the “occult,” in the way we conceptualize it as a category including magic, alchemy, and astrology, came about. I’m open to reading suggestions on all of this, of course.

Has anyone considered writing a history of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game? It would be great if someone were accumulating all the institutional wisdom of the people involved in its creation, evolution, and distribution.

Take care, everyone.

Published in: on April 13, 2021 at 12:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – Black Letter Press Petit Albert

Today I’ll be reviewing the Petit Albert as issued by Black Letter Press and translated by Paul Summers Young. For a caveat on Young, see this post. The two other editions above are the Ouroboros Press edition (purchase link, review), and the Spellbook of Marie Laveau from Hadean (now OOP, review here).

I’m not going to spend too much time on the significance of the Petit Albert – you can check out my writeup at the last link. Also, what follows is not a systematic read of each recipe in each book. Rather, I covered the magical sections of the Black Letter Press edition – I assume you didn’t want the soap recipes – and also dipped into the material from the Hadean and Ouroboros editions, the French edition dated 1752, and some entries from the Trésor de la langue française informatisé from time to time as I went. Much of what I have to say would be superseded by a fluent bilingual reviewer.

The book itself- visible at the upper left above – is quite an attractive book, with its bright blue binding, gold foil pentacle, and cloth bookmark. I’m not sure if I’m fond of the black on dark blue color scheme myself, especially with regard to the spine. Perhaps making more use of brighter cloth colors or gold or silver lettering might be considered for future releases?

Young’s translation covers essentially the same material as in the other two translations. I did notice more problems with the omission of certain passages, and I wanted to quickly address what I think is going on here. It doesn’t happen often, so I don’t see it as a deliberate effort to cut material for space. Rather, it seems that Mr. Young’s translation technique occasionally overlooks a passage and doesn’t catch it later on. I think it would be an easy fix.

I left my last review of the Ouroboros / Hadean editions without any strong feelings one way or another – and I’m in the same place right now. I think the Hadean’s footnotes on the word choices put it slightly ahead, and the Black Letter edition’s occasional omissions slightly behind, but neither are major factors. There’s still an opportunity here for an English translation that takes quality up another notch, and I look forward to it appearing someday.

Published in: on March 30, 2021 at 7:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Prepping Le Petit Albert Review, Trolls Galore, Magical Exorcism, The Book of Four Wizards

As you can see above, I’m working on that review of the Black Letter edition of Le Petit Albert, with some examination of other translations. It might not be a full-text review – reading them same text three times is exhausting – but I think it will give people a good idea as to whether they want this book.

Ármann Jakobsson has posted an e-text of his book The Troll Inside You: Paranormal Activity in the Medieval North to his Academia account. If you like what you see, please think about purchasing a print copy.

Agostino Taumaturgo has recently posted on his blog about the curious magical/exorcistic (I use this term with some caution, as the line is not always clear) rite from Bayerische Staatsbibliothek CLM 10085. If you’d like a printed edition with French commentary from the publisher SISMEL, you can find one here.

(I actually did visit the SISMEL offices while I was in Florence – if stopping by on a weekend when they were closed can be considered “visiting.”)

The post’s author has also released a book on Medieval Rituals of Catholic Exorcism, which I have received but not yet read as of yet.

I’m going back to work on the introduction to The Book of Four Wizards. Part of it is turning into an assertion of the importance of manuscript research, which I’m not entirely certain is necessary in the present clime. I’ll give some thought about whether to cut it.

Take care, everyone.

Published in: on March 22, 2021 at 7:50 pm  Leave a Comment  

Review – The Magic of Rogues

Penn State University Press has recently supplemented its excellent Magic in History series with a Magic in History Sourcebooks series, dedicated to publishing primary texts on magic in relatively cheap editions. (This is somewhat confusing, as texts published in the long-standing main series might also fall under that format.) The first work in the series that provides ritual magic texts is Frank Klaassen and Sharon Hubbs Wright’s The Magic of Rogues. It won’t be released in print until April 15, but the electronic version has been out for at least a month. I wish I’d known about it when finishing up my last article.

This relatively short work provides two early sixteenth-century case studies of magicians who ran afoul of legal troubles. The first deals with the Worcestershire nobleman William Neville, who consulted numerous cunning folk in order to gain influence over powerful people and determine whether he would gain his father’s lands. The second concerns a conspiracy of local clergy and secular individuals to treasure hunt near Mixindale. As can be expected, neither of these went well – although those new to the material might be surprised at how light the penalties were and how little interest the authorities had in pursuing their investigations beyond the immediate situation.

For both such cases, Klaassen and Wright provide both legal and magical documentation. The legal documents include the indictments and the testimony of multiple individuals for each of the cases. Following these are segments from magical texts that cover operations with similar purposes. It would be better to magical texts used by the participants, but it’s rare to find anything like this in Britain, in my experience. Both include translations from the Latin (although the Latin itself is not provided), with modernized spelling and some changes to wording for modern sensibilities. The latter can be questionable sometimes, but in this case, each instance is footnoted, and I completely agree with each one of these editorial insertions.

I’m not the best person to comment on the magical texts, as much of the material for the second part comes from Bodleian e Mus. 173, which I published as Of Angels, Demons, and Spirits. What appears here are not so much entire manuscripts as illustrative examples of particular aspects of magical practice. Your tastes may vary, but what I found of interest are instructions for the creation of talismans of Jupiter, with a list of several usages for different purposes, and a fifteenth-century procedure for calling up the four demonic kings. Another reader might find some answers here. The presentation is excellent and thorough – I can see the solution to at least one unresolved question from my own text – and the editors have even made sure to include the illustrations, which other editors might pass over.

I do have a few small quibbles with the text. For starters, Folger V.b.26 is repeatedly referred to as V.b.28. Also, at one point Oberion is referred to as a “demon.” This is not always the case; I have instances in which Oberion is referred to as a spirit, a fairy, or an angel, but not as a demon, save in the legal articles of accusations against Sir James Richardson presented here. (In fact, the term “demon” is little used in the material I’m examining at all, with the more neutral term “spirit” being preferred.) This is largely a question of interpretation rather than fact, however.

This text admirably succeeds in its task of providing a window for non-specialists into primary texts detailing the lives of early sixteenth-century necromancers and their practice. As for those who want magical texts, this does not include a large number, but the texts chosen are of interest and probably worth it for the price.

Published in: on March 13, 2021 at 11:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Elucidarium Elucidated, Magic of Rogues Escapes, A Modern Liber Spirituum, Even More Books, Your Bank Account Suffers, Book of Four Wizards, Gaming

I wasn’t sure quite what to blog about this week, but I was provided with a variety of riches from friends, email, and social media. First, Joseph Peterson came to the rescue with a new book, Elucidation of Necromancy, to be issued in December:

Since it first appeared over 500 years ago, the Elucidation of Necromancy (Lucidarium artis Nigromantice) and the closely related Heptameron have become essential guides for individuals seeking to call on angels and other supernatural beings for help. Countless amulets and pendants have been made with its designs, and elements have repeatedly been adapted and incorporated into other manuals of ritual magic. In spite of this, neither a critical edition nor a translation has been previously published. In particular three manuscripts of Lucidarium have come to light recently, which provide a clearer and fuller ritual than the printed Heptameron. For example, they add critical instructions for making the seven angel sigils, which have become so widely known. Together they bring to life this important current of esoteric tradition, showing how it has been repeatedly adapted and used by different individuals for centuries.

Bobby D. also pointed out to me that Klaassen and Wright’s Magic of Rogues is available on Kindle ahead of the print publication, so this has jumped to the front of my reading queue for the time being. One of the first footnotes portends another release from the same authors: Everyday Magicians in Tudor England: Legal Records and Magical Manuscripts.

We also have a twentieth-century work with some deep grimoire roots – Paul Huson’s Liber Spirituum, due out in May:

Drawing on this wellspring of knowledge and such venerable works as the Key of Solomon, The Magus, Heptameron, Three Books of Occult Philosophy as well as others set down a unique and informed set of rituals, in addition to employing his own artistry in the creation of distinctive imagery.

Using the highest quality photographic reproduction and printing methods, Paul’s personal grimoire has here been faithfully and accurately reproduced for the first time. In addition to preserving the ink quality and use of gold and silver paint, this facsimile reproduction has maintained all of Huson’s corrections, including torn, pasted, missing pages and his hand drawn and renumbered folios. Preserved as well are the unique characteristics of the original grimoire paper as it has aged through the decades. In this way, the publisher has stayed true to Paul Huson’s Book of Spirits as it was originally drawn and painted.

Editiones du Monolithe is releasing another work this month: a facsimile edition of a Key of Solomon from the Tozgraec text group held at the Russian State Library.

Finally, we have the second volume in Troy Books’ reproductions of J. H. W. Eldermans’ work(s) on gnomes, the Gnome Grimoire, edited by Wilbur Taal. My sense is that these are much more works of a creative mind than compilations of folklore, but it might be of interest to readers nonetheless.

As for the Book of Four Wizards, I’ve been poking into what I thought at first was some sort of magical amulet made in the shape of three crosses. As it turned out, it’s actually a devotional work by the seventeenth-century Tavistock poet William Browne – you can see an example of it here. I’m not quite sure what the original author’s intent was – as a work of poetry? Did they view it as an amulet?

The Pendragon game has gone into Anarchy, so everything is upended and crazy and wonderful. Both my Dungeon Crawl Classics games, of which I speak very little here, are steaming along.

Talk to you in a week, when maybe I’ll have read something.

Published in: on March 6, 2021 at 11:48 am  Comments (2)  

Incoming Agrippa, More Incoming Agrippa, Black Pullet Revisited, E(xcellent)-Book, The Next Review, Book of Four Wizards

Great British Folklore and Superstition Map

What appears above is the Marvellous Map Company’s Craftily Conjured Great British Folklore and Superstition Map, which is quite a bit of fun. I’ve shown only part of it and blurred it up to respect their work, but it is wonderfully detailed.

Eric Purdue’s new translation of Agrippa’s De Occulta Philosophia is scheduled for a November release. Most of the English editions we have today, including Tyson’s, derive from the translation of one “J. F.” from the seventeenth century, so a new one is definitely welcome. I will warn anyone who clicks on that link to prepare for sticker shock – this is a slipcased three-volume hardcover set.

Black Letter Press is taking pre-orders for its edition of the Fourth Book of Occult Philosophy, newly translated by Paul Summers Young:

The first is the 1565 Liber Quartus de Occulta Philosophia, which is a Pseudo-Agrippan gloss on some of Agrippa’s themes, which was published with a version of Pietro D’Abano’s Heptameron, which served as a gloss upon the gloss. This apocryphal work went on to lead an interesting and influential afterlife, accompanying the Three Books like an ugly rumor.

The second is an expanded selection from De Incertitudine et Vanitate Scientiarum of c.1530. The 1533 first edition of the Three Books concludes with extracts from The Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences touching upon the books’ themes; we have expanded upon that to encompass a more complete sample of Agrippa’s commentary on magic in that book. Rather than being at odds with the Three Books, The Uncertainty and Vanity of the Sciences is the context within which Agrippa published his famous magical textbook.

Here’s a passage I ran across in Morgan’s translation of the Sepher Raziel, which might be of interest to Black Pullet aficionados:

If you wish to give your enemy trouble in sleeping, take the head of a black dog that never saw light during its days and take a lamella from a strip of (lead) pipe from an aqueduct, and write upon (the names of) these angels and say thus… (p. 49)

Coincidence? There’s a good chance – but maybe one of my readers will eventually find an answer that ties the dog to the pullet.

Cummins and Legard’s Excellent Booke of the Arte of Magicke, the magical diary of two sixteenth-century magicians and explorers, is now available as an e-book in a quite-affordable edition. It’s also available in paperback, with the e-book included free.

We had a Twitter poll to determine my next review. It ended in a tie, which would have allowed me the difficult position of reading whatever book I wanted. We did get one Facebook vote, meaning I will be reading the Black Letter edition of the Petit Albert next.

I’m coming up on the end of my close examination of the Book of Four Wizards. Near the end, there’s a number of passages assembled by our eighteenth-century (?) author, mainly taking sections from a “Key of Rabbi Solomon” outside the Sibly-Denley-Hockley tradition and the Goetia to assemble something new. There are some passages I cannot place at this time, but maybe I’ll stumble across the answer before I submit it.

It is frustrating that I may be able to return to the UK to poke around in libraries before the book is submitted, but many people have worse problems.

Take care of yourselves, everyone.

Published in: on February 28, 2021 at 12:07 am  Comments (2)  

Review – A Modern User’s Guide to the Black Pullet

Newcomb Black Pullet

You all probably thought I’d never get around to this, did you? Indeed, Papers is a blog of its word, even if that word is spoken many months away from the deed.

I’ve dealt with the Poule Noire, or the Black Pullet in previous posts, including recently posting a review of the Black Letter Press edition. (If you aren’t familiar with the original, I’d suggest reading the background there first.) Now we have A Modern User’s Guide to The Black Pullet from Jason Augustus Newcomb, who has written several books dealing with magic which I cannot say I have read. The book was originally funded through an Indiegogo page, where it did not fund completely but seems to have been delivered nonetheless. The work is not available on his website, although one can find many of the talismans and a circle intended for use with it.

This paperback volume – apparently the Indiegogo featured a limited-edition color hardcover – includes a lengthy section on the Black Pullet‘s history and methods for magicians to work with it, followed by a new translation of the work from the French. The whole is rounded out with five appendices providing various ancillary materials. It does not include an original French text, a bibliography, an index, or (oddly) pages that are numbered on both sides, but it does include a good number of footnotes.

The first section of the book is over seventy pages, which might have been better served broken up into short chapters. Most of this part is dedicated to considerations regarding performing ceremonial or ritual magic in general and the Black Pullet’s operations in particular. It’s likely most of this will be familiar to the book’s intended audience, but I’m not always the best judge of such things. To his credit, Newcomb does observe that it’s difficult for a modern magician to enter into the mental mindset of a person from centuries ago, which is an important point when approaching such books.

Within Newcomb’s system, ritual magic consists of ten fundamental steps, starting with preliminary procedures and ending with the license to depart. Newcomb is aware that the Black Pullet does not include all of these, and indeed many magical texts do not, which he says is “either because they wish to veil the information from the reader or more often, because they assume the reader is already well versed in the correct procedures” (p. 16) He passed over the other possibility: that some of these are not included because they were not followed. For example, Step 8, “Testing the Spirit,” is present in Dee and Gilbert’s diaries, but it’s largely lacking from most grimoires – and it would be the sort of process that would impel magicians to write down various tactics and tricks if it was a common concern. I’m not going to tell practitioners not to take such steps if they think they’re vital to the practice, of course.

Newcomb also deals with the history of the various versions of the Black Pullet that have appeared, including the Poule Noire, Trésor du Vieillard des Pyramides, Le Génie et le Vieillard des Pyramides, and another short text entitled Poule Noire that usually accompanies the Veritable Dragon Rouge. His case, that the Poule Noire is the original text from which the others are derived, is a plausible one. I would be more cautious than Newcomb in insisting on the importance of original publication dates, in a genre for which manuscripts and ephemeral publications have been so important. Newcomb observes that many of the talismans from the Trésor are taken freely from a published 1750 Clavis, and I’d have liked to see an analysis of the possible origins of the Poule Noire talismans as well. Nonetheless, it’s a starting point for future explorations.

After this lengthy section comes the translation itself. It seems fine and unremarkable to me – save for a curious decision about translation regarding the spirits our magician commands, translating them as “jinni.” Why?

I translate the French word génie almost exclusively as “jinni” in these pages simply because I believe it is the word least likely to cause confusion, and it fits with the Middle-Eastern tone of this work… (p. 17)

…throughout this work I am generally going to use the word “jinni” instead of “genius” or “genie.” I am doing so despite of the popularity of the word “jinni” in “haunted ring” circles or its mixed associations within the Islamic world. If we are to take any part of the “young soldier’s” story seriously, then “jinni” is the most likely term that the “old man” of the Pyramids was using, and we will leave it at that. (p. 28)

I will definitely not leave it at that. The narrative surrounding the Black Pullet is, as Newcomb admits, a fabrication likely deriving from popular interest in Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in order to lend an air of exoticism to a French magical text. One cannot use the questionable Orientalism from a two-century old document to justify a contemporary choice to use questionable Orientalist terminology that, by the translator’s own admission, doesn’t reflect how the word is used as part of living cultures or how the reader or practitioner’s associations might shift due to this particular translation.

I’m not going to perform a detailed look at the various editions, but I did page through this book, the Weiser edition, Young’s Black Letter Press edition, and this French edition of the Poule Noire to get some idea. Having looked at one or two talismans and the procedure for creating the black pullet, I feel that the Weiser and Newcomb editions were comparable. Young omits some of the framing material, and there are a couple of puzzling decisions made in his text, none of which really affect the procedure much. If someone fluent in both French and English would perform a detailed read of all of these, however, that would be a much better judge of quality.

As for the five appendices, two are various rituals and methods for a practitioner to approach the material in the book. The third is a translation of the shorter Poule Noire text accompanying the Dragon Rouge, as mentioned above, followed with a short section on the occult significance of haggling and chicken eggs. The final one includes some sections from the occult novel Comte de Gabalis, which Newcomb points out as being similar to passages from the Poule Noire. The case would be more compelling if he included the original French texts; otherwise, it’s unclear how much of the similarity derives from the translator’s decisions.

Overall, I think practitioners and those interested in the book’s history will prefer this edition., The Black Letter Press edition is far ahead in presentation (I haven’t seen the Indiegogo color hardcover, so I won’t pass judgment on how that fits in). Finally, the Weiser edition is best for those who want a cheap available copy.

What do you want to see next? Go to my Twitter poll and let me know!

Published in: on February 20, 2021 at 7:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Hadean Press Production Schedule, Enodia Releases, Hellfire Ads, Book Theft, Book of Four Wizards, Upcoming Reviews

Precious Apothecary, Cecil Williamson’s Book of Spells, Black Letter edition of the Petit Albert

Now, for the ongoing disappointment of everyone who showed up for Pendragon content – I start talking about books of magic again!

Hadean Press has dropped a neat publication schedule for 2021, including hardcover books on runes, Yoruba religion (EDIT: Al reminds me this one is on Vodou), the Arbatel, and narratives in charms. I’d suggest looking at their pamphlet lines as well if you order from them.

Enodia Press is accepting pre-orders for the first volume of the Key of Necromancy, for those of you who didn’t get the first printing.

Hellfire Books is running ads on Facebook for titles and a “lifetime membership” of some sort. I find the large number of likes and small number of entirely positive comments to be interesting. My present policy is to buy Hellfire products only if I encounter copies physically, which I don’t anticipate doing any time soon.

Clifford Low pointed me to a Patheos article on the theft of occult and pagan books from public libraries. Its prevalence is largely based on anecdotal data, so I think there’s an interesting project there for some enterprising librarian seeking publication. I think it’s unlikely that any of my readers are tempted to engage in such behavior, but acquiring, cataloging, and preparing books for the shelf is an intensive task with expenses well beyond a book’s retail price.

I’m back to the Book of Four Wizards. This week’s project was examining a magical inscription around the edge of a circle and realizing it was taken from a ninth-century prayer of protection in battle. Sort of. I’m getting close to the end… Aside from some points that need to be re-examined. And writing an introduction. And working with S. Aldarnay on the illustrations. So there’s still a good bit to do.

I am actually reading Newcomb’s book on the Black Pullet, and I’ve put the next three possible titles I might want to read afterward in the picture above. (The bookmarks do indicate that I’ve already made forays into that.) Any one you’d particularly like to see?

Published in: on February 13, 2021 at 4:55 pm  Comments (1)  

“Wokeness” and Pendragon

Knight from Pendragon Rulebook

I was asked about the desire of some players of Pendragon to play characters who are not necessarily white, male, Christian, heterosexual, upper class people in the comments to my last post. I think it’s an interesting question, so I’m going to write another post about it. 

Let’s begin with an issue of my own making, because of an aspect of the game I omitted: Pendragon’s setting draws on history, legend, folklore, and literature from many different periods to differing degrees, and encourages GMs to do the same. Greg Stafford did draw heavily from Mallory, but he wasn’t afraid to dip into some unpublished French manuscript or steal a scene from Excalibur if it was what worked. 

Among all of that, there are certainly opportunities to play all sorts of knights of different genders, backgrounds, faiths, and sexual orientations. These are not anomalies – most were built into the official game at one point or another. Early on, Greg allowed pagan knights out of player concerns as to playing Christian warriors, and the rulebook started discussing the possibility of women as knights way back in 1990. This is not to say this inclusion is always done thoroughly or particularly well. Still, bringing in players who might not want to play what they see as the “default” in an Arthurian literature game has been key to the system from the beginning.

And sometimes they just need to be brought in. For example, my Pendragon groups have begun with most characters being pagan, because they feel more comfortable with that. As time goes on, however, some of them create Christian characters, because they feel comfortable with trying them out. I don’t know how to analyze this, but I think that being open to accommodating other people may lead them to reach out similarly. 

One other note about wokeness. I’ve always found that whatever dangers may arise from attempts to be inclusive are a distant second to those that arise from its absence. I have a recent example from Pendragon that establishes this.

A few months ago, Chaosium released a quick start that also reflected the changes in the upcoming sixth edition rules. It sparked off considerable controversy in the fan community, with some people very angry about what they were seeing. Why? Because the quick start adventure mentioned the possibility that female knights might be characters, and a statement that the art of Pendragon books from this point forward would include more women in armor.

Yes, the rulebook suggested how to include women as knights back in 1990. That artwork at the top of this page? From the current rulebook. Will the rules be changing anything about their inclusion? Not really – it remains at the group’s discretion.

Yet we have had some people furious because an upcoming book might have slightly different art that harms no one and has no impact on their lives or leisure time activities, but that might encourage other people to buy the book and play the game. Those are the people who worry me, frankly.

It might be best to end with a dimly-remembered anecdote from a lost message board about Greg Stafford. Someone once told him, “I won’t play Pendragon until I can play a lesbian Jewish knight.” Greg said, “Come over next Tuesday!”

Published in: on February 8, 2021 at 8:34 pm  Comments (6)  

Review – The Pendragon RPG

The Great Pendragon Campaign and 5.2 edition Pendragon rulebook

I had a request on Facebook to talk a bit about Pendragon, so I’ll give it a shot. Those who showed up for something else will have to wait until next time.

The Pendragon role-playing game was first published by Chaosium in 1985, as one of the grand works by Greg Stafford, perhaps better known for creating the world of Glorantha. It has appeared in multiple editions over the years, with the “sixth” (Chaosium editions often have questionable numbering) being slated for release soon.

We cannot discuss Pendragon without also bringing up the Great Pendragon Campaign. A shorter version was published along with the first edition of the game, but 2006 saw the release of the GPC, a massive campaign taking your players over eight decades, from the midpoint of King Uther’s reign to the Battle of Camlann. The book was so huge that some supplemental material, even the index, had to be omitted. The current thought is to re-release it as multiple volumes, to which I’m looking forward. It’s the killer app to Pendragon, so it’s hard to discuss one without the other.

I can say that I’m very happy with the system behind this game. Pendragon take the BRP skill-based percentile system and chops it down into a d20 system, using only the d6 and d20 as its dice. Within this system, most people will have a 1 in 20 chance of rolling a critical, and an equal chance of rolling a fumble, on each roll, reflecting the swings of fortune from the literature.

On top of skills, Pendragon adds Traits, which can guide or compel characters in their actions while still allowing for player autonomy, and Passions, which cause characters to be swept up in their emotions and gain bonuses to their skills for a short time. Given that all the characters are knights, this means the main differences between them are based on their heritage and personalities, driving the roleplaying. Amazing successes, terrible failures, and making the character’s emotional states matter in terms of mechanics – all of this makes Pendragon a good choice for system for modern, Critical Role-inspired gaming styles.

(Also, just to be clear, your characters can play those really high-and-mighty chivalric knights, but the game acknowledges that’s a high standard that most players can’t reach. Thus, players are more likely to play ordinary schlubs with odd personality quirks and hang-ups, who get in their own adventures while Lancelot and Tristram and Gawaine are off on their quests. And the GPC still provides opportunities for those characters to be significant in the larger stories of the game.)

Pendragon also encourages a structure of “one session equals one year.” Have you ever had the experience in D&D in which your characters go on multiple adventures and ascend to the heights of their power, all within about a month and a half? Pendragon slows down everything. Magical healing is rare, and healing is slow, so a knight will often be out for weeks after a combat. This is not a disadvantage – it means that everything slows down, allowing for relationships to build, world-shaping events to occur (through the GPC), and marriage and children take on great importance. A long-running campaign will often move to playing the children and grandchildren of the original knights, who may bring in the Traits and Passions of their parents.

The strengths of Pendragon are largely due to the amazing job that Greg Stafford did on the book. Some of its downsides come from that singular vision as well. Some key rules – especially dealing with marriage and child survival – are relegated to supplements, thus leading to that sheaf of papers visible in the rulebook above. We also get some odd situations, like Greg deciding to rename most of the locations with non-Anglo-Saxon names in some supplements for a while, causing a lot of paging back and forth. I’m not bitter.

The other major downside comes from the source material. That’s not because you need to be an Arthurian scholar to play or run the game; that might give you some additional insights, but it’s hardly necessary. It’s that much of the Arthurian literature was written about characters who were European in origin, Christian, male, heteronormative, and products of a hereditary nobility. Today many players are not one or more of those categories, and might have understandable objections to having to play someone of one of them. How can a GM decide if this game would be right for their group?

It depends upon the objections. Pendragon does a good job of providing a setting that shows toleration to both Christian and pagan faiths in Britain, although the rules tend to favor Christians due to the overlap of Christian and chivalric traits. If you want to be another faith, you might check out The Book of Knights and Ladies. The rules try to deal with women as knights – not that well, I think – but some handwaving can make them work. In a game in which heredity is important, it’s good to look at options for LGBTQ characters to be able to perpetuate their households, whether by adoption or magic (especially as the latter amounts to handwavium in this edition). The game system is set up to mechanically favor Cymric/”Celtic” characters, but Knights and Ladies allows characters to come from a wider geographical range. Class – well, you can just forget about removing class without tossing out a lot of the game and most of the GPC, so I wish you the best if you want to try.

One aspect of the rules is the usage of the Hate (group of people) passion. For the most part, this is aimed at Saxons, who I think we can agree did all right overall in the world later. It can apply to the Picts as well, but I don’t know how many people identify as Pictish these days. Then we bring in the Irish and the Welsh… and it might generate problems. It’s worth thinking about your group and whether using these passions is worth the risk.

In terms of RPG logistics, while the game is probably best with about four players – in line with the default party size of most recent D&D rules – it requires probably about four hours to run a single year successfully, assuming that the year is uneventful. Gaming sessions seem to have gotten shorter over time on average, so that’s another factor to consider.

At any rate, it’s a game I love and enjoy. If you decide to play it, I recommend picking up the Book of Feasts and the cards that go with it. It’s not necessary – just a lot of fun.

If you’ve had your own experiences with Pendragon, or have more questions, please let me know.

Published in: on February 7, 2021 at 3:10 pm  Comments (1)