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)  

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  1. I don’t really get the objection that because the characters are european christian male heterosexual nobles, and players possibly are not, the game would not be attractive to them. Isn’t the whole point of rpgs to play something you’re not? If narrow minded bigotry, in this case presumably of the “woke” variety, is preventing you from exploring imaginary worlds, perhaps there are more suitable hobbies.

    You can of course adapt all these vile outdated notions away, but then what’s left? A shallow surface with underneath the same-old-samo fantasy mush we already have in mainstream D&D? Better to accept that this setting is not for you if you can’t stomach the main distinctive features, and move on to something else. Why not play Blue Rose instead? (And I don’t mean this negatively, like Pendragon, it’s a perfectly valid & highly specific world with aspects offensive to some people)

    Anyway, I’m pretty sure GMs know their regulars and are able to figure out if it will fly. And if you’re organising a new group, all you have to do is make clear what the setting is like and turn away players showing signs of incompatibility.


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