presentation of the game’s core mechanics, some might want to skip these sections and get down to playing. But in the world of Pendragon, the topics of religion and hierarchies are central. Nothing is peripheral in this game.
Amid his discussion of different levels of knighthood, Stafford presents a curious interconnection between players and characters. This builds to the curious idea that, to play a lord effectively, one must also learn the ropes of gamemastering: “For a player character lord to be effective, the player must acquire a wider view of the realm than a player of a simple adventuring knight. The recommended path to gain this overview is to require that each lord’s player must become a part-time Gamemaster for short-duration events. Thus, the lord must, at some time, sponsor an event and his player must run the required game session.” Once again, Stafford tries to cut off shortcuts: He wants this game to be deep, immersive, and thorough.
The advice about gamemastering is also put forth to afford relief to the gamemaster. Stafford realizes that running a full-on Pendragon campaign (which is perhaps the only way to run Pendragon) is a marathon: “[The Gamemaster] must mastermind the campaign and oversee adventures for a year or more of real time to sustain a King Arthur Pendragon campaign, and he deserves a chance to play characters occasionally without also having the Gamemaster’s responsibilities.”
The religion of Pendragon is a complex, contradictory soup of myth, legend, and fiction (with a sprinkling of history). Two forms of Christianity exist: a British variety and a Roman one. The British strand is steeped in apocryphal accounts and wildly speculative alternative histories. On this account, Jesus rubs elbows with druids and Joseph of Arimathea later travels to spread the good news after Jesus’s death. Joseph carries with him the Holy Grail.
Aside from having to negotiate (or perhaps choose) between these two varieties of Christianity, the group involved in a campaign also has to decide on whether the church will be represented as “good” or “bad.” That is, do you want your church to be an edifying force spreading education, comfort, and healing, or do you want it to be a corrupt institution that takes advantage of the innocent sheep? Varieties of paganism are also available for exploration in the game, and there is also the matter of determining how exactly good and evil will manifest themselves in the world. For example, evil can be quantitatively defined by certain traits (like Vengeful, Cruel, and Selfish), but it might also be present in supernatural demonic forces.
Oh yes . . . and then there is the faerie realm and the influence of druids. As with other dimensions of Pendragon, you start to dive into a topic, and the layers continue to unfold. The operation of magic in the game is mysterious with key aspects left intentionally vague: “The magic of Britain is extremely potent, partially because of its very mystery. Magic is also dangerous because it is hidden and subtle: Your character knows that it is more likely to drive him mad or age him a century in a day than it is to roast him with a bolt of lightning.” So the rules of magic are left rather undefined by the game: The idea is that player characters will not be wizards themselves (at least not in the core game), though they may come into contact with such forces.
The final chapter takes up the matter of wealth: Being a knight is an expensive proposition, and the game deals with the paradox that, while knights have far more wealth than the rest of society, they are in a curious way among the most impoverished because their expenses are so extensive. Stafford says, “Part of the enjoyment of the game, for some, comes from spending money freely and lavishly.” I’m not sure I would be in that party, but I would also see a group of accountants embracing the economic aspect of the game and having a blast.
The core rulebook ends with a number of appendices. The first of these points forward to the most important supplement, The Great Pendragon Campaign and outlines new classes of knights (such as the chivalrous one, the romantic one, and the Knight of the Round Table). More on the passions (especially that of love) is provided. Now catch this: There is a passion called Amor which is passion directed toward a person but which remains chaste. If amor is consummated sexually, then it becomes “Love (Amor).” The terminology is intentionally overlapping and is used to emphasize the era’s own changing view towards love both as a concept and a passion.
The appendix also discusses future changes in armor and technology, and this brings out another curious aspect of the game. A Pendragon campaign will span a number of years of game time, but the technological development that occurs in that span will be accelerated. So running the game will have the effect of some different timelines running along simultaneously at different paces. I might play a character that ages five years, but in that time frame, hundreds of years of technological innovation might occur.
Appendix 3 provides some introductory scenario, and it introduces what is, in my mind, the most glaring flaw in Pendragon: namely that the game seems to suggest a heavily scripted narrative. At least in the opening scenarios, the entire arc of the game play is established from the start. I can’t judge at this point whether this is the natural default of the game, but at least from this appendix, it seems that the game involves the players following along a narrative whose main beats have been predetermined. This type of play might not be inevitable, though the game’s strong grounding in Malory and other Arthurian literature means that it is strongly inclined to follow along with a standard story line.
The appendices wrap up with a consideration of special combat situations: namely, battles and jousts. And then there are some suggestions for further reading.
My final evaluation? Pendragon is like a gothic cathedral: it is ornate and complex, and its architecture appeals to both the intellect and emotions. My reservation with the game is less its elaborate structure than its inability to generate a genuinely original and creative game play experience. The key question is this: does the game have its players live within an Arthurian tale, or does it allow you and your friends to forge and create a tale of your own? It seems like Pendragon is heavily invested in the former, and that would perhaps be entertaining for a while, but I would want to branch away from the standard tale after a spell, and if I did so, would I still be playing Pendragon?