Tuesday, September 12, 2006

A Different Sort of Roleplay: Pendragon

One of my hidden RPG passions is Pendragon, an Arthurian roleplaying system. I have been fascinated with the Arthurian legends from quite a young age and during my early 20s did quite a lot of reading around the subject. So when Nigel offered to not only run the game, but also to run the Great Pendragon Campaign - the campaign of Mallory's Le Morte de Arthur.

We're onto the second session now and I'm loving every minute of it. However, it does present a different view of roleplaying than the scenarios we are used to. The campaigns I have ran have been heavily character-driven, story-based affairs with a lot of player driven ideas for metaplot and not a lot of system at all. We've been playing in that style for the best part of five years. It's bound to become engrained.

Pendragon is, at first glance, a totally different beast. Firstly, it has a lot of 'crunch' about it, but the crunch is essential to deliver the punch of the game. I'll take a few examples:

Passions: Each character has opposed traits (like Valourous/Cowardly) which define the personality of the character. The players control these traits in a modelling sense at char gen but afterwards, they must act within them or pay the consequences. So, say a knight with Valourous 17 (highly renowned for his bravery) decides to run away from battle against a weaker foe. He would not be acting valourously at all and would probably get a check on his Cowardly. At the end of the year, if he rolled over 3 (his cowardly) he would move to Valourous 16/Cowardly 4 - less brave. The passions, in the right amounts and combinations also give bonuses towards being knightly or religious. The genius of this system is that it links the characters actions directly to their aspirations and you live with the consequences of your actions, sometimes painfully. A Religious knight that falls from the tenets of his chosen path will become a fallen knight and must do deeds to make amends. Far better than any silly alignment system.

Glory: Glory is the ranking system for knights - a knight with 1500 Glory 'outranks' a knight with 1450 by popular acclaim. You get glory by a number of means - mostly battle, deeds and presence at great events. You also get glory by just surviving and being a knight. This really underlines that you are playing an ARTHURIAN game rather than a fantasy game. You meld the actions of the adventurous knight and the medieval lord together as one.

Year-to-Session Play: Each session encompasses one whole year of play. It starts with a Spring Court, then knightly adventuring, then whatever service your Lord requires and then the Winter Court and the bluebooked Winter Phase. This seems wholly at odds to the previous games we have played where one session might encompass three hours and an entire campaign might have lasted one summer of bloody conflict. Again, it is the modelling of the ARTHURIAN aspect of the game that we see here. The swathe of the Arthurian mythos is played against a historical backdrop and you can only really appreciate that if you are moving through that backdrop at a reasonable rate of knots. The actions of medieval knights were maintained around short bursts of indentured warfare and then lots of mundane rogering, healing and harvesting. It models the genre beautifully.

So how do we, very story-based players, handle this strange system?

The first thing I would suggest is to embrace the basic heart of the game and that is that it still revolves around the characters. We have already seen Excalibur and aided Merlin, in a very small and dismissive manner. However, we are essentially 'First Level Knights' interacting amidst 20th Level Druids! I'm pretty sure that our actions will catapult us to knightly stardom and we will soon be the movers and shakers in the Court of Earl Roderick.

Secondly, we have to grab our chances to roleplay when we can and create the tensions and conflicts that we are used to dealing with. So if Sir Guillame challenges me to lead a charge and I do, he damned well owes me a challenge - even if it is at a feast. If Sir Guillame fathers a bastard child by a lady in waiting, he will have to pay the consequences. Alongside that I also feel that we have a responsibility as players to badger the referee senseless for details, especially of the meta-history in the background. Whats happening with the Saxons? Are they near Sarum? Why were we left on garrison duty when we could have been fighting? etc.

Finally, I think we have to realise that this is a very different style of roleplaying. And thats not in a bad way either. This is ARTHURIAN roleplaying and as such mirrors the genre tropes of the source material - be that dark ages poetry, Mallory, T.H.White, Cornwell, Zimmer-Bradley or even Geoffrey of Monmouth! The mechanics of the game mirror and model these genre tropes brilliantly and if you use them as a tool that acts in the background to reinforce the game, it allows this new style of roleplay to come fully to fruition.

It has indeed, picqued my interest on whether the same type of system could be adapted to mirror other historical roleplay scenarios? I've never seen a game that centres around say, the heroes of Ancient Greece, but I can see a derivative Pendragon system working there too.

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