Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Pendragon, Part 1 (Mostly Character Creation)

I chose to read Pendragon because I've had cultural appropriation on the brain. It's pretty much the opposite of Oriental Adventures. It attempts nearly zero cultural appropriation, it treats medieval Europe as the complex and alien culture that it truly was, rather than taking for granted its "neutrality" vis a vis the modern day, and it is laser-focused in the specificity of its influences. This is a game where you play background characters in the Arthurian canon, damnit, and nothing else!

And before we get into the meat of my critique, I must offer up an apology to the game. I'd previously dismissed it as "boring," and allowed that perception to color my opinion of the game for years. I think it has something to do with the dryness of its presentation (its very simply laid out, with large columns of text, no page decoration, and only the occasional black and white art). I was also put off by the narrowness of its subject matter. I got this game more than 15 years ago, and it is only with the onset of early middle age that I can truly appreciate its attention to the nuances between Cambria and Cumbria.

But my biggest problem with the game is something I now realize is its greatest strength (even as I'm more aware than ever how problematic it is) - Pendragon, to a degree greater than just about any rpg I care to name, eschews diversity.

This isn't some anti-SJW chip-on-its-shoulder sort of reactionary thing, but something fundamental and essential to the game's very construction. That being said, I'd be lying if I claimed to be entirely comfortable with how much this game is exactly what alt-right nerds have always claimed to want.

However, I am willing to give Pendragon the benefit of the doubt for three reason.

One: the astonishing specificity of its source material. There's a quick test for whether you can use a particular work as inspiration for the game - is it about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table?

Two: the game's lack of diversity extends into areas where even the most reactionary of gamers usually likes to see it. Not only is "white, Christian male" the heavily preferred character type, but the suggested default characters are all from the same small county in central England and they are all knights from the same extremely narrow social and economic class.

So, basically, Pendragon is a game where you play as a group of well-connected bros, all trying to get into the same elite fraternity. You can differentiate your characters by being "the party bro" or "the super religious bro" or "the buff bro," but ultimately, when they cast the movie based on your campaign, they'll never have to audition anyone not named Chris.

And, when you think about it, that's highly weird. If the game was trying to be racist and sexist, it wouldn't make that decision. People like to play different character classes with different, distinctive abilities. I've been roleplaying for 20 years, and only once has anything even remotely comparable happened with any degree of spontaneity. Playing D&D, during the usual and reflexive check-in between players (to negotiate the sort of character boundaries that explicitly exist to prevent a Pendragon-style game from happening accidentally) we all separately floated the idea of playing a dwarf character and then, in a bolt of inspiration, someone suggested we all make dwarf characters and play a generally dwarf-themed campaign.

It was kind of a magical moment, but even then, we all had very distinct character niches in the form of our classes (which were, I believe, a fighter, a cleric, and an assassin).

That's pretty much why I shelved this book for so many years. I never wanted to pitch a game that, in D&D terms, would be "all human fighters."

The third reason I'm willing to give Pendragon the benefit of the doubt is that it's actually pretty good. I'm no expert on Arthurian legend, but just from the first 75 pages or so, it looks like this book is very thoroughly researched, and a lot of thought was put into its decisions. Nothing seems arbitrary (or, at least, the book is pretty good about arguing that the things that seem arbitrary were probably based on some pretty messed-up stuff in the source material). It all holds together as an art project, a style of game rooted in its own peculiar obsessions.

I'm looking forward to reading the rest of this book. Hopefully, it continues to justify its own existence through a frankly unsettling degree of hardcore geekery.

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