Sunday, March 17, 2019

Pendragon - Part 3 (Mostly Setting Stuff)

 Part 1

 Part 2

Okay, so that Assassin's Creed: Odyssey is a pretty neat game. If I were still blogging about video games, I'd have a thing or two to say about it, that's for sure. But I'm not, so the only thing I'm going to say is that I lost the better part of two weeks, and that's a little embarrassing. But the rpg-reading train is back on its tracks and the time has come to wrap up Pendragon.

The last third of this book contains rules for creating female characters and magicians, which kind of irks me a little, because I gave it a pass for its lack of diversity on the theory that it was uncompromising in its specificity. It feels like the worst of both worlds to allow those characters, but make them utterly ineffective. Pendragon would have been a better game if it stubbornly stuck to its initial premise.

Putting that aside, the rest of the book is pretty good. The chapter on magic would have been better served if it had ditched the player-facing magic system and just talked about the weird occult stuff that players might encounter on their knightly adventures, but it's not totally unsalvageable. At the very least, it can be used for sorcerous antagonists.

The scenarios chapter is also mostly good. The introductory adventure gives a lot of specific, actionable advice for how to be a GM that is, frankly, missing from almost every other product aimed at beginners. Stuff like "Half of the job is for the gamemaster to propose questions to the players which they answer for their characters. . . Just let them do as they wish, describe the passive events as well you can, and keep asking questions when something exciting is happening."

It's good advice, and a lot more pragmatic than the rest of the book had led me to expect. The intro adventure is set up a lot like a video game tutorial - a trivial task to get players used to rolling dice, a low-stakes horse race to introduce the concept of opposed rolls, a friendly joust, then a hunt, and ending with a nontrivial fight against bandits. Each stage ups the challenge and complexity and introduces a new mechanic. Then it all ends with an official knighting ceremony and the players' first winter stage. Generally a well-structured start, assuming the players come in as complete newbies.

The rest of the scenarios are less detailed, but the book has a pretty efficient format for presenting them in a limited amount of space. It devotes a paragraph or two to the set up, then outlines the major characters, a couple of possible plot-twists, the expected solution, and then the rewards. Because this game is based on one of the foundational texts of western fantasy (and, indeed, storytelling in general) a lot of the individual scenarios have something of an elemental feel to them (at least three are variations on "this knight has kidnapped a woman and now you have to rescue her), but it's kind of okay.

The only real flaw is that it becomes clear that Pendragon is a little too wedded to Arthurian canon for its own good. A couple of the scenarios literally revolve around players failing at some quest the canon Knights of the Round Table later succeed at. The PCs are basically the nameless nobles who couldn't pull the sword from the stone so that Arthur's feat could be properly legendary.

To put it in perspective, an average PC knight, over a lifetime of serious, but not fanatical adventuring, might be expected to earn 10,000 glory. It might be possible to double that, though half is much more likely. Sir Lancelot is just starting out, as of the game's default start date, and he has 50,000.

Sure, you're going to want to have a few of the famous knights be really high end, in order for the PCs to have peers if they ever reach the big leagues, but that total is absurd. It's not even notionally attainable. Gawain is the next biggest at 32,000. It all serves to give the impression that players are meant to be peripheral figures in Arthur's court and stay that way.

Which, you know, is not necessarily what I want for a game about King Arthur's knights. I think I'd prefer a game that was more of an Arthurian pastiche. One that let me play out stories that were kind of like the medieval romances in a setting that resembles Camelot, but which had room for lady knights and peasant heroes and useful magicians (and, of course, I couldn't read the sections of Fine Amor, without thinking "sure, but how do I make it gay?"). Would that game necessarily have been better? I can't say. But it could probably have managed to capture everything I enjoy about Pendragon.

UKSS contribution: This one is tricky, because a lot of the setting is just England and Wales, but with old-timey names for everything and the occasional superstitious explanation for stuff that exists in the real world. Like, Merlin upgraded Stonehenge with a couple of new monoliths, which is interesting, but not really the sort of thing that can be ported over to a generic setting.

I guess the most versatile setting element would have to be the Questing Beast. I'm not sure precisely what it is except that it is obtrusively elusive. You can't catch it or kill it, but you always know when it's near and you can track it for miles. It's probably a religious allegory, but I like to think that it's an intelligent creature that trolls hunters on purpose.

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