My first memories of fantasy stories come from my sisters and my mother reading me stories from Howard Pyle’s stories of King Arthur. This was my introduction to magic and wizards and knights in armor carrying swords. Those stories lodged themselves deep in my psyche, and to this day, despite the many jokes about the ubiquity of projects derived from Arthurian lore, I have a hard time passing any of them up. What I’m saying is, not only have I seen Excalibur many, many times, I’ve watched First Knight and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword.
One of my favorite Arthurian works of media is T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. The idea that people who want to do good can be deeply flawed, and that doesn’t taint the concept of a better world that they desperately wish to enact, and the concept that making the world a better place is cyclical, and something that is a new challenge revisited upon each generation, are strongly resonant themes for me.
King Arthur and the Tale of the Dice
While I had already stolen my sister’s D&D Basic set before this time, 1985 was a prime year for my RPG hobby engagement, as I finally started to run games and pick up my own material, including Dragon Magazine. It wasn’t long before I saw advertisements for the King Arthur Pendragon RPG. Unfortunately, neither the hobby shop nor the bookstores that I frequented ever had this game available, so it was much later in life (we’ll call it the PDF era) that I finally looked at the game.
Once I was older and had access to the game, I was a little overwhelmed with the concepts. This wasn’t just a game where you played a character that participated in adventures, this was a game where you kept track of what happened over the course of the winter, when you couldn’t make war. You had an estate and a family, and honor and standing, in addition to knowing how easy it was to hit someone with a lance. This was a lot to take in.
Most of my previous knowledge of the Pendragon RPG comes from 1st edition and the revised 5th edition rules. To fully wear my heart on my sleeve, while the contents of 1st edition Pendragon have some major problems stemming from prevalent social assumptions in 1985, both about modern culture and about medieval culture, those rules struck me as much more approachable than the revised 5th edition rulebook that I attempted to digest. My history with both Arthurian legend as a folklore and the earlier editions of this RPG made me very interested to see what Chaosium had planned for their new Pendragon starter set.
I have not had the opportunity to run or play the game, although I did run through the solo adventure included in the Starter Set. I have had some experience reading through both the 1st and 5th edition of the game. I was provided with a review copy of the Starter Set, both a physical copy and a PDF copy, from which to write my review.
Pendragon Starter Set
Authors: David Larkins, with Greg Stafford
Development: David Larkins, Veli-Matti Pelkonen, and David Zeeman
Editor: Jeff Richard and Rick Meints
Pendragon Line Editor: David Larkins
Design & Layout: Simeon Cogswell
Copyediting & Proofreading: Roberto Mandrioli, David Zeeman, and Keith Mageau
Licensing: Daria Pilarczyk
Cover Artist: Andrey Fetisov
Interior Artists: Mathilde Marlot, Mark Smylie
Cartography: Francesca Baerald, Matt Ryan
Heraldic Artist: Katrin Dirim
Border Designs, Marginalia, & Graphic Elements: Simeon Cogswell, Kalin Kadiev, & Ash Stellmach Mandrioli, Veli-Matti Pelkonen, David Zeeman
Comments and Input to this Edition: Ellie Akers, Cedric Alesandre, Jeff Erwin, Scott Hall, Matthijs Krijger, Sven Lugar, Kurt Over, Robert G. Schroeder, Nick Tolimieri, Gintaras Valiulis, Malcolm Wolter
Original Material by: David Larkins and Roderick Robertson (Battles), Gintaras Valiulis, David Zeeman, and David Larkins (Brawling), Ellie Akers (Horses), Malcolm Wolter (Intoxication), Matthijs Krijger (Becoming Mad, Tournaments)
The Physical Product
I’ll go into art and layout a bit more when we get into the PDF, but I wanted to point out that I love the box that this game comes in. I have picked up a range of starter sets and beginner games over the last decade or so, and many of them feel unsatisfying. Some of the best are functional and can withstand use, and some of the worst don’t function as a box once you open them. This is a solid, well-constructed box. The main thing I will say about it is that it is about exactly big enough to contain the contents. No throwing any extra notepads or other game accessories in this one, unfortunately.
There is a set of standard six-sided dice (6) and a 20-sided die provided. The six-sided dice are a pearlescent yellow with black lettering, while the d20 is a pearlescent royal blue. There are cardstock sheets that have perforated lines to punch separate into tarot-sized stats for opponents and objectives for the mass battle portions of the adventures that appear in the set.
There are eight pre-generated characters on character sheets. Each of these are printed front and back and have two folding sides with additional data on them that are revealed when they are folded open. The back of the character sheet has full page artwork of the character, and the closed, folded sides of the sheets include the character’s heraldry and information about their background and life on one side, and a section for recording events that happen across different years, and for tracking glory, on the other side. Folding the character sheet out reveals the characters characteristics, hit points and wounds, skills, possessions, traits, and passions. There are five men and three women among the pre-gens, with three Christian knights and five non-Christian. One of the characters is a darker-skinned man from Syria, who has been sent to the isles from Constantinople.
There are rules summary sheets included in the boxed set, ranging from single pages to eight-page booklets. There are three larger booklets including the starter adventure, the rules and setting summary book, and a campaign adventure book. There is also a single sheet with the contents of the entire boxed set. Here is the breakdown:
- What’s in this Box (1 sheet)
- Character Folios (8 total, gatefold)
- Perforated Cards (6 pages of cardstock, separated into 18 individual cards)
- Book 1: The Adventure of the Sword in the Stone (48 pages)
- Book 2: The Fabled Realm (68 pages)
- Book 3: The Sword Campaign (52 pages)
- Appendix A: Tournaments (1 sheet)
- Appendix B: Battle (8 pages)
- Appendix C: Overland Movement (1 sheet)
- Appendix D: Visiting a Foreign Court (4 pages)
The paper used for the books is nice. I like the texture and feel of the pages. However, none of the booklets have heavier cardstock covers, so I’m a little concerned about long-term endurance of the books that get referenced more often, as well as the potential to lose the single-sheet summaries.
The PDF version of the product includes individual PDFs for each of the preceding items listed, with the exception that all of the character folios are incorporated into a single PDF. The Pendragon line has always had very clear layout and attractive artwork for the era in which it was published, at least if 1st and 5th are any indications of the intervening editions. Compared to the 5th edition rules, however, the boxed set (and likely 6th edition as well), adopt a hybrid of painted artwork and marginalia that calls back to the sixth-century setting of the game.
The books are set up in two-column layout, and I mean that in the most literal sense. There are lines to border each column, with specific sections that border headers, and make room for sidebars that appear in a thinner third column where they are utilized. Headers are set up in a clear calligraphy font, while the body of content is a more traditional, easily readable font.
The artwork is a combination of marginalia that hearkens back to historical documents (you have to love the knight riding the dog, and the simian squirrel talking to a lady of the court), heraldry, some gorgeous “illuminated” cartography, and more traditional (for RPGs) painted artwork of various scenes taking place in the adventures. It’s also worth noting that there are knights with darker skin tones, as well as women knights interspersed in the artwork.
I think it’s important to note up front that Greg Stafford is credited throughout this set, and much of the content, including the adventures, are reworked versions of what Stafford had produced for previous editions of the game. Greg Stafford passed away in 2018, and was a tremendous influence on the RPG industry, who created Glorantha (the Runequest game setting), HeroQuest, and the Ghostbusters RPG (which paved the way for the system used in WEG’s Star Wars RPG line). That’s just the very abbreviated version of his contributions.
Part of why I say this is that if you glance through 1st edition, 5th edition, and this boxed set, while you may notice that the actual words and tone used to express aspects of the game have changed, most of the rules that appear in all three of the systems I cited have remained relatively intact. It’s very clear that there is an effort to keep this version of Pendragon very similar to its predecessors, and in keeping with Stafford’s original design and scope.
I’m very interested to see the final version of the sixth edition rules, in part because of what has and hasn’t transferred between different editions. For example, there is a statement in the boxed set that Pendragon has always allowed women to be knights. This is true, but 1st edition had a separate Characteristic generation method for women, making them less likely to have higher Strength and Size statistics, and more likely to have a higher Appearance statistic. The 5th edition of the game didn’t use a separate character generation method, but did add commentary about how this was done to make women characters viable, and then discussed the smaller average size and body strength of women.
Because the game is presenting a very specific image of the 6th century, and because it wants to stay close to Stafford’s vision, there are aspects of the game that seem highly resistant to change. The language in the boxed set is open and inviting, but I’m really curious to see how many artifacts the full 6th edition rules retain from previous editions.
Characters in the game have five characteristics, rated on a 1 to 20 scale. They have hit points derived from those characteristics. Whenever a character tests just a characteristic, they attempt to roll at or lower than the characteristic, with a higher number that is at or lower being better than a lower number. A critical success happens when you exactly match your characteristic, while a critical failure happens on a 20.
Characters also have skills that work in a manner similar to characteristics but represent more specialized areas of interest or training. For example, Courtesy, Dancing, Hunting, and Brawling are all skills. Skills are divided into regular skills and combat skills, but both rolls to determine success or failure work the same way for both types of skills.
Characters have a set damage characteristic based on their strength and size and expressed as a number of d6s to roll. Weapons can modify this base set of dice when used. Armor subtracts from the damage a character takes in combat, and shields and some parrying weapons can subtract from incoming damage as well, depending on the resolution of a combat roll.
All characters have a matched set of traits that represent the opposite ends of behavior. These are things like Forgiving/Vengeful or Temperate/Indulgent. Whenever a character is in a situation where they might be tempted or motivated by one of these sets of traits, they may be asked to make a roll against these values. Each pair adds up to 20 total. A character can test either one of the pair first. So, a character faced with something terrifying may have a 10 in both Valorous and Cowardly. They can test first. If neither trait is indicated by rolling at or below the rating, the character picks between the options.
Characters also have passions. While all characters have the same set of traits, passions are specialized to the character. A character can roll their passions to gain a benefit to a skill they may be attempting to roll, but failure can indicate that a character is lost in a fit of madness based on their passion.
Opposed rolls measure how closely each person in the contest rolls to their target number, with the person closest to their target number while still being successful winning the opposed roll. The most granular example of this comes from combat, where the opposing roll determines who gets to damage who. For example, a character that gets a minor success, meaning that they successfully rolled their skill, but didn’t roll higher than their opponent, gets to add their shield and/or parry value to the amount subtracted from an opponent’s roll.
The number of success and failure results in combat make the overall system look a little more granular than it otherwise would. It’s fairly easy to adjudicate rolling at or below your target number for all of your roll resolutions. That said, whenever you get injured, each wound must be treated separately, because first aid (short-term care) and chirurgery (long-term care) apply separately to each wound. If your wounds aren’t aggravated by you doing hard work before you heal up, and they don’t start to deteriorate because they haven’t been well cared for, you heal up every Sunday (essentially, you heal every week, but the game has you apply this healing on Sundays).
Who Tells Your Story
Reading the literal rules for the trait system, I assumed this would be more flexible in the regular adventures than they appeared in the solo adventure. The solo adventure has you making decisions and skipping to different numbers, making other decisions, and sometimes making rolls on various skills or traits. In the solo adventure, if you fail a Forgiving roll, for example, you get upset with the person that spilled water on you in a very specific, proscribed manner. I had assumed this would be a little more open-ended in the campaign adventure, but there are still quite a few places where failing a trait check means something very specific, and you aren’t just directed to take an action in light of that trait being active, but you effectively lose agency over your character due to that roll.
When I was initially reading these rules, I was hoping for an explanation more like the Strife and Composure statistics in the most recent version of Legend of the Five Rings, where characters that are Compromised can remove Strife by Unmasking, but that unmasking is an undesirable emotional outburst defined by the player. I think there is room for telling a player that their character should show that they have given in to being Indulgent, for example, that still gives the player agency in defining the exact actions that the player character takes. While this is a starter set, and not the full rules, the adventures model using these rolls as a very constrained means of binary resolution that temporarily pushed the character in a specific direction, and I hope that the full rules have a more complete exploration of using them without the GM determining a binary resolution that removes the player from the action taken, outside of rolling the die.
The first adventure in the set is a solo adventure where you play a character that is still too young to become a knight. Your character is friends with a 17-year-old Arthur, and you are told how to generate a constrained list of statistics used for resolving this adventure. Your characteristics are set, and a few of your skills and traits have been pre-set, but you have a few extra points to use to bump up skills and nudge your traits around.
You end up meeting adult knights, going on hunts, traveling to Londinium for a tournament, wandering the city, and eventually deciding what to do and how to resolve the events leading up to Arthur drawing the sword from the stone. Some of these decision points can lead to your character becoming injured, and with the right set of misfortunes, your character can potentially die in the tutorial. With the different decision points, you are often told to roll against different traits to see how you react to a situation, and in the end, depending on both the decisions you have made and the resolution of various trait rolls, you tally various events to see what kind of career you have waiting for you when you are old enough to become a knight.
The campaign adventure starts with the same tournament but has you playing one of the adult knights provided in the pre-gens. You start the game in the grand melee, which introduces you to the combat rules. These aren’t so much mass combat rules, as much as rules where everyone in your company has to make some group decisions before resolving your actions each turn. In addition to fighting enemy troops, these combats can sometimes open up opportunities, special aspects of the encounter that may change the narrative, like finding an opening where you can capture the leader of the opposing force.
In the middle of the grand melee, there is a ruckus that involves some teenager pulling a sword from the stone, and battle lines are drawn between supporters of Arthur and those set to oppose his rule. After you resolve this initial situation, you play through several events throughout the year, which often involve dealing with the mercenaries hired by the enemies of Arthur, keeping the sword safe as it lies on an altar ready to be used for his coronation, and keeping various gatherings from turning into assassinations of the boy king.
Even with the more constrained results from some of the rolls in the solo adventure, I really like how it introduces the setting and the game mechanics, and I had fun playing through it. I like that it gives you a microcosm of what the game is about, by tallying your decisions and the result of your rolls to see the long-term ramifications of your actions and the events you have lived through.
While I like a lot of the individual scenes in the Sword Campaign adventure, there were a few too many scenes that didn’t really leave much room for roleplaying, to reinforce that your characters were present for a specific event. For example, your character doesn’t save Arthur from a lurking monster so he can get Excalibur to fight Pellinore, you can just get your ass handed to you by Pellinore so you can say it happened before you escort Arthur to the Lady of the Lake.
This is something I ran into, on a smaller scale, when reading the expected timeline of events in Achtung! Cthulhu. I’m fine with saying “this is how the war unfolds if the PCs never got involved,” or “this is how things happened assuming the PCs are minimally effective.” But I like the idea that the PCs can at least cause some important deviations, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, by being present and making decisions.
This is something that is often present in games based on IPs. Most modern IPs solve this by having the PCs do something important away from the prominent NPCs in the setting, only crossing over with them from time to time and not having the same adventure that the NPC is having. I think you could do something similar with Pendragon (Arthur has charged you with fighting off this warlord, which may take you years!), but this adventure really wants you to be within sight of Arthur most of the time. In all fairness, there are a few parts of the adventure where the PCs wander off on their own to perform a mission, but these missions don’t feel like their own story, so much as a side quest for them to flex their skills.
Theme and Objectives
The boxed set is very clear in explaining what Pendragon is about. You want to become knights, to increase your standing, and earn glory. Thematically, the game is about seeing a more brutal and warlike country unify and become more enlightened. This is all great, because it works exactly how I would expect an Arthurian campaign to unfold.
There are sidebars discussing how you can introduce your own influences based on different Arthurian stories, which will change the feel of the setting depending on what Arthurian stories you want to incorporate. There is also some discussion about not introducing uncomfortable elements that the players don’t want to deal with, and calibrating the degree to which some historical aspects are emphasized. However, it also returns to the notion that the game is about moving from a more brutal society to a better society, while also emphasizing how it is “right” for knights and nobility to see themselves as above commoners, even if they acknowledge they have a responsibility to them.
This is another aspect I don’t expect a boxed introductory set to be able to tackle, but I really hope that the full sixth edition rules have a more robust discussion on multiple evils of 6th-century life and which ones the group want to engage with, as well as which ones they want to show Arthur’s reign fighting to rectify. I would love to see a guide to session zero that discusses how to touch upon sexism and misogyny in a way that is careful and utilizes safety tools, and the group deciding that sexism is one of the evils they want to see lessen as Arthur is more successful at stabilizing his kingdom. That’s just one example. I can see groups deciding that religious freedom, sexual freedom, or any number of other inherent societal evils will be their implicit focus for the campaign.
Again, this is the starter set, but I feel that the sidebar on “Your Pendragon May Vary” is great, and I think sometimes it’s important to check in with the reader and make sure they know that the designers don’t think you are “doing it wrong” if you add in your own perspective, but it also feels a little bit like a disclaimer that the game itself is mainly going to be worried about presenting a series of canon events based on the Arthurian sources that the game cites as its inspiration, rather than being more of a toolbox approach.
Arthurian Legend and all of the religious, social, and political discussions that surround it make it a web of folklore that influences things to this day, and I don’t want to lose track of the game itself, and how a lot of this boxed set hearkens back to what I love about Arthurian legends.
I enjoy what is a simple means of resolution. I can’t help but think that while this system does remind me of older systems I grew up with, it still feels like it was clear about its presentation in a way other games of its era aren’t, and that flows through to the present. I like the potential roleplaying that can come from traits and passions, and I like the idea that the long term goal is really to see what kind of legacy you leave, not just to see what impressive adventure you have in the moment.
It’s also clear to me that modern games are still influenced by these concepts. I am currently running a game of The One Ring, and the concept of the Winter Phase in this game dovetails with the Fellowship Phase of that game in a positive manner.
Sailing to Avalon As a starter set that introduces someone already enamored of Arthurian lore to the game, I think this does a great job of grabbing the imagination.
When it comes to modeling the behavior, it almost feels like characters failing their trait checks is presented as a way for the GM to pump the breaks and have them act in a way that supports the way the plot is “supposed” to go. I think there is a lot of potential in guided roleplay based on the emotional framing of the trait resolution, but as expressed in the boxed set, it’s a series of logic gates that removes anything but the dice and the GM determining the endpoint of the switches.
The way Passions and Madness interact are another issue with agency. Most games that present madness do so in a manner that is unhelpful to the discussion of real mental health issues. In this case, madness is presented in a more “fairy tale” manner, but I think the actual problem is that it’s using a hammer to create a downside to trying to activate passions that can give the PC a bonus on a roll.
Qualified Recommendation–A product with lots of positive aspects, but buyers may want to understand the context of the product and what it contains before moving it ahead of other purchases.
As a starter set that introduces someone already enamored of Arthurian lore to the game, I think this does a great job of grabbing the imagination. While there aren’t full character creation rules, the pre-gens are varied enough, and there is enough campaign material that you can get a lot of mileage out of this starter set, which isn’t always the case with beginner boxes.
As a forecast of what direction Pendragon 6e will go, I think it’s a good indication that the tone will be engaging and inviting, but still a mystery when it comes to addressing wider underlying themes present in a variety of Arthurian stories. I was wondering if this edition of Pendragon was going to be analogous to Call of Cthulhu 7th edition, i.e., a new edition that is fully compatible, doesn’t change much, but changes some key areas that makes for a much better quality of life throughout a campaign. From this beginner set, I’m not sure if I know that yet, for sure. It is very similar to past expressions of the game, but those expressions are clear and engaging.