Friday, June 13, 2014

Ideas for New Pendragon Campaign

Although I love the Dark Ages, especially the 10th to 11th centuries, after several attempts the Grand Pendragon Campaign just doesn't work for me with new players of Pendragon during the "Dark Ages" Uther era. Everyone is excited about chivalry, jousting, and King Arthur, and they're confused and bored with the long series of wars. There's also just less personality in the early years: everyone's a mailed petty warlord who hates Saxons. I've tried to get intrigue and rivalry with neighbors, raids, etc. going, but it always ended up pretty unfocused. They haven't established enough of a relationship with the world/mythos and moral quandries are rare; it's all feasting and so on. It's probably my fault for not having more creative ideas for adventures. There's so much potential in Pendragon, but finding the sweet spot where players get real choices is hard so far.

So, I think next time we play, it'll be the Boy King era: still chaimail, still lots of battle. But much more variety and the knights get some real Arthuriana: Arthur, Morgan, Merlin, fighting against Lot and Saxons, discussions of chivalry, weird shit like Balin's saga. I also want to have the knights be knights errant, so they may start with different statuses and get to make choices like "how loyal to Arthur," should I raid enemies and get selfish traits, or forgo material advancement and focus on Chivalry. They can follow Arthur on his campaigns to become High King, meet Guinevere. There's also Tournaments. With all this, knights can come from almost any background and work together or become questing friends. It also may allow new/rotating players more easily, since all you need is a connection to Arthur. All that said, we probably won't break from D&D, which I enjoy immensely and has the advantage of having a really casual playstyle compared to Pendragon.

I've also been reading The Norman Conquest, and there's great examples of the kinds of random things followers of conquerors (like Arthur) can get into, and the basic theme that could work for knights is: loot, gain treasure, but mistreat the common folk or try to maintain chivalry despite rebellions, forgoing material gain. Reinforcing that knights need land to get a noble lady with some glory and money in her dowry, so they'll need to get the eye of Arthur or a Duke.

Campaign setup:

  • Start: Grand Pendragon Campaign 510 The Sword and Stone. Start as knights errant going to first Tournament in London (starting adventure to try combat, getting eyes of ladies) immediately after their knighting, witness sword in the stone, can choose whether to pledge to Arthur. 
  • Pendragon 5.1 for prices, equipment. Remember that all but masterless knights will be able to repair/replace their starting equipment based on the network of obligations they have. Landed knights who lose a horse can have their farrier check stewardship to have a new one ready (+5 bonus for a rouncey) each year, giving bonuses over time, household knights can ask their lord for a replacement charger. Better than starting equipment, in-town luxuries like inn visits or jewelry, etc. must be paid for out of pocket. Goods (like captured armor) and prisoners can be sold/ransomed in appropriate places (London, rich estates, etc.), but roleplay.
  • Use Book of the Estate for any landed knights. Increased wealth generally results in larger number of followers, so falls into a military theme I like. Won't start with managing lands, because I may have some of the fathers alive.
  • Battles: Use my own 'narrative' system for battles: narrate general goings on in the battle, roll off high commanders based on modifiers listed in GPC to determine whether round of battle is going well, modified by prior rounds general results (battle going well or poorly, someone just died, etc.), unit decides where they want to try to fight based on situation (avoid getting swarmed when going badly, choose where to charge, etc)., unit commanders make opposed roll to accomplish the tactic just chosen, critical successes can results in golden opportunity like attacking famous enemy. Hopefully, this keeps it simple, gives some tactical choices, and makes the Battle skill worthwhile.
  • Focus on having lots of random adventures in addition to the battles, because they will be "Arthur's knights," in one way or another, they'll have reason to go to court and meet the famous people. But no one (except maybe Arthur) will have plot immunity, and most plots will be changed to the knights can intervene. Also they'll have their own choices about whether they want to go on adventure. I won't be having them "patrol lands" that much (that was a real drag I thought would lead to things, but never did). More adventures.
  • Focus for the first few years will be the fight against Lot, with various random adventures thrown in, with an eye towards Arthur awarding the knights lands in the North. Then later in time, the North will become the focus: dangerous picts and witches, cold mists, Irish raiders, intrigue against other Northern families.

Updated Pendragon Character Creation

First, a rant. It's pretty annoying that King Arthur Pendragon is such an appealing game with so many good ideas, buried under a lot of cruft that makes it hard to play the game. It's got all the excesses of the overlong, overdescriptive, metaplot manuals of 90s games like White Wolf. Pages - pages about aspects of Arthurian chivalry, inheritence, exactly what happened in any given year of Arthur's reign with events the players are specifically excluded from influencing. Now this can be "fixed" by removing plot protection and letting players change events, removing NPCs from taking center stage, but what's frustrating is: Why can't the Pendragon game books make all this medieval and Arthurian lore into random event tables and adventure seeds? Gosh guys, I can buy a book on medieval life or read Mallory without your game- Can I get some non-railroady adventures? Could you set up an area of Britain with adventure sites? The Grand Pendragon Campaign, and several of the supplements like the Book of the Estate, gets soooo close to this, but then just half-asses it. Of course, it's probably because it was so exhausting to get all the metaplot and historical detail "just right."

Then don't even get me started on how the solution to every problem for how something should play out in game is an excessively complex subsystem that mostly consists of random rolls and adding new skills. Ugh.

That said, the whole idea of virtues/traits and compelling passions is such a great core idea (I also like the roll-off but under a skill mechanic, genius!), and there are so many charming parts that emerged from the cruft that I keep imagining a great game. I just get frustrated by how much investment I'd have to have to really get a game going.I also got the Book of the Estate which has a much better system for dealing with being a landowning knight-it's really hands off, but has some simple ways for dealing with interesting plot-centric events like raiding and building improvement with your extra cash. This is a hopeful sign, and removes the problems we had in the past with too much estate paperwork.

An example of the problem is character creation: Pendragon veers between the cookie-cutter knight character who starts with the exact same stats as all other knights with like 2 choices at creation and any type of knight, from Britons to Saxons to Byzantines with a variety of choices with minor stat differences. And not a lot of the differences are meaningful (see complaint above adding complications...). To get players through character creation, I've tried different ways to simplify/streamline this to make interesting characters out the gate, but none have really worked out.

Anyway, here's my current ideas for simply character creation for the next time we play Pendragon (if I can ever convince my players again). This is to go with starting the campaign at the beginning of Arthur's reign so the 'magic' of the game can come out with chivalry, faeries, and fighting other knights (rather than just Saxons):

Pendragon Character Creation [updated]
 (You'll need Book of Knights & Ladies for the details; pages 40, 42, 51-58, 62-65; briton only 40, 42, 51, 58, 62)
1. Roll son number: 1d6-1, with 0 or 1 = first born/heir.

2. Pick Culture & Religion (default Briton Christian, common others: Pagan, Roman, Aquitaine, Saxon); can roll on Boy King region chart if don't have preference.

3. Roll father's class, Feudal 2, BK&L 40 (unless outsider culture)

4. Roll family wealth BK&L 42; receive Boy-King Era equipment

5. Determine traits based on culture/religion, pick 1 notable trait at 16 (unless don't want to).

6. Roll Passions 3d6+4 for Loyalty, Love (Family), Hospitality, Honor; roll 3d6+4 for Hate if have backstory reason (work with GM).

7. Decide whether random attributes (better deal: 3d6+4 SIZ, 3d6+1 others; women 3d6+5 APP instead of size; reroll all 1s) or spread 60 points. Modify by culture (Briton +3 CON). BK&L 51.

8. Skills: (1) pick main weapon, make skill 15; (2) pick 3 noncombat skills, raise each to 10; (3) make 4 increases to either attributes by 1 pt per increase or (combat) skills by 5 pts per increase; (4) add 10 discretionary pts to noncombat skills; (5) any remaining skills start at default values for culture (BK&L 52-57).

9. Roll family characteristic (BK&L 58); roll Luck item (BK&L 62-65)

10. Based on creation rolls and choices, determine whether inherited son, family status, and other background. The knights will be knights errant at the beginning of the adventure, although they will still owe 40 days service to their liege. Important details: whether father alive, connection to family and status, who the knight squired with, whether knight has squire (must be wealthy/important enough).

11. Start knighted before important tourney: 1150 starting Glory. Go forth ye flower of chivalry!