Saturday, June 14, 2008

My Pendragon Campaign: Let Me Show You It

I keep meaning to write about this, but it's such a monumental topic, and I'm so close to it, I keep starting and re-starting this post, trying to find a way to approach it. This is, after all, the first time I'll be writing about this campaign in any sort of detailed way. The best way, I think, is to dive right in, cover what I can in one post, and re-visit the topic to fill in the gaps in future posts. Along the way I'll try to address some of the lessons I've learned during this whole crazy journey. So here goes nothing!

I've been into gaming in a serious sense since 1989. Thanks to reading Dragon Magazine, I already had a fairly good idea of other people's gaming experiences by the time I got a weekly group going in 1992. And one of those experiences that I most wanted to replicate was the "epic campaign". My friends who I gamed with shared this enthusiasm; we wanted that magical experience of seeing characters grow from novices to godlings, to make second- and third-generation characters, to experience a campaign world in all its depth and complexity.

That goal eluded us for nearly 15 years.

It wasn't through lack of trying. Many epic campaign outlines were purchased: "Masks of Nyarlathotep" and "Horror on the Orient Express" for Call of Cthulhu, "Night Below" and "World's Largest Dungeon" for D&D. Attempts were made to run these mega-adventures, but we never got more than, say, 10% into the material before the campaign was derailed.

These derailments were due to a variety of factors. For many years our youthful enthusiasm was to blame--there was simply too much gaming we wanted to do and experience to stick with one campaign for very long. Then there were the usual bugbears that get in the way of any campaign: GM or player burnout, real life stumbling blocks, etc.

(Side tangent: I often compare campaigns to movie scripts. In a given year, many thousands of scripts are written. Of those, only a few hundred will even be read by anyone connected with a production company. Of those, only a few dozen will be seriously considered for purchase. Of those, only a handful will be purchased and "green lighted". Of those, only a handful will be made into a finished movie. Similarly, ask any GM [or player] to jot down their campaign ideas and you'll end up with a laundry list. From that list, perhaps only a half-dozen at best will ever be run, and only one or two of that half-dozen will be run for any great length of time.)

Now, I had purchased King Arthur Pendragon back in the mid-90s, being a big fan of Chaosium and Greg Stafford both. And it had sat on my shelf, admired but never played. Its monumental size was part of the problem--it took me years just to sit down and read the damn thing (I had a copy of the 4th edition, that massive soft-cover tome). Finally, a day spent at the courthouse after being called up for jury duty allowed me to blitz through the two-thirds I hadn't read and finish reading the damn thing. I was ready to run Pendragon!

I ran a couple one-shots over the next couple years, and a sort of mini-campaign for Des, a story focusing on the exploits of an Irish noblewoman. But I wanted to really sink my GMing teeth into that ultimate Pendragon experience: the game was designed for multi-generational story arcs! An epic campaign cried out to be run!

So it was, in July of 2006, I stepped up and volunteered to run Pendragon. If only I'd known what I was getting myself into...

It was an odd time to start a campaign. The 5th edition had just come out; the group made their characters using 4th edition, since it offered more options (and more random goodness--more on that shortly). Looking back, I realize how very little I knew about the incredibly deep setting, or the rich but decidedly old-school rules. We, as a group, sort of lurched our way into the campaign, feeling our way like blind cave fish through the unexplored catacombs of this new game. (Yeah, how's that for a metaphor?)

Things were decidedly goofy. Alex created a knight, Sir Morial, who was sworn to kill Merlin himself. This was his shield:

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Yeah. It was that sort of campaign. Yet there were seeds of deeper role-playing already planted. Tim ran a character named Sir Neilyn, a mountain of a man who wielded a double-handed axe yet was gentle and chivalrous and pious, about as close to a typical real-life paladin as you can get. Des ran a character named "Sir" Vivien, a female knight disguised as a man--a hoary trope, to be sure, but one that we'd never visited before. Named in honor of the patroness of her distant cousin Lancelot, the name worked well since it's unisex.

(An interesting demonstration of the changes between 4th and 5th edition can be seen in Vivien's background: when she was created using 4th edition, her homeland of Benoit (or Benwick), on the west coast of France, was listed as having a French culture. And that's how she's always been played by Des, playing up the French stereotypes to the hilt. In the recently-released 5th edition Advanced Character Generation book, characters from western France are now considered "Aquitanian" or effectively British. This makes sense, as such quintessential Arthurian characters as Lancelot and Bors hail from the region. Nevertheless, it leaves Vivien's characterization a bit out in the cold.)

The campaign's tone, and its future, tangibly shifted with the advent of two events about a month into the game. First, Des very kindly purchased The Great Pendragon Campaign for me. Ah, the advantages of having your girlfriend as one of your players! Needless to say, the purchase of the GPC allowed me to really delve into the source material and have a structure upon which to hang the action.

LESSON ONE: Using the GPC has really showed me the importance of having a strong narrative outline in any sort of long-term campaign. This isn't an outline of plot, mind you, just an outline of what's going on in the world year to year. That way, you can have the events of the world occur and allow your characters to interact with that as they will.

That's how the second ingredient in the shift in focus and tone came about: the GPC told me that the great Battle of Badon Hill was due to happen, so larger events imposed themselves upon our little group of provincial knights.

It was at this time that Vivien revealed her true identity to her companions. That revelation, which had been kept secret from the other players as well, signaled that this was more than a game about one-dimensional knights running around and jousting each other.

LESSON TWO: You can get deep, deep roleplaying out of even the most simplistic set-ups. I think people tend to dismiss Pendragon on first look ("You can only play a knight? What's the point?"). Yet there is so much you can do with just that simple set-up; in a way, the more you diverge from Pendragon's basic game, the less it works. Pendragon, I think, is a forebear, if not the direct ancestor, to the current generation of indie games that set out to provide one and only one game-play experience but do it really, really well.

The Battle of Badon Hill was one of the most thrilling experiences in our group's history. Defying the odds, all three PCs survived the epic, three-day battle (this may have been due in part to a slightly hazy understanding of the Battle rules on my part...). There was action, there was drama--with Morial riding in wielding a magical shield to save Neilyn after the latter had been cut off--hit points plummeted, cheers were raised. In short, it was why we game.

Badon Hill marked the transition of the campaign to a more high-powered experience. Looking back, that's not necessarily the direction I would've liked to go, but by that point the campaign had taken on a life of its own.

LESSON THREE: Long-term campaigns are organic creations that tend to push characters and plots in their own directions. The best approach as a GM is to simply go with the flow.

Besides, this was our first campaign in the world of King Arthur, and I think we all wanted to interact with the legendary figures that populate that setting. So things progressed rapidly until all the PCs found themselves with land grants and, eventually, seats on the Round Table. There were adventures through the "Other Side" and a visit to the Grail Castle, where the group helped stave off an assault by the evil Duke Klingsor, they made friends and enemies among the legendary elite of Arthuriana, Morial and Merlin kissed and made up.

And along the way there was romance as well: marking another first for our group, two PCs developed a relationship. Neilyn, who began the game openly bisexual, and Vivien, who was still masquerading as a man, became lovers. And had children. A lot of children. And now Tim is playing his own character's son. Des has retired Vivien and is playing the half-fey offspring of Sir Morial. The arc of Neilyn and Vivien's forbidden love affair became the central dramatic event of the first "volume" of the campaign.

Neilyn was given an earldom in exchange for marrying the Saxon widow of the former earl; Vivien reclaimed her father's lands from the wicked King Claudas of France and was named a Duchess. Neilyn, after siring a son with his wife, passed his title on to his progeny, then retired to spend the rest of his years at Vivien's castle in Benoit, her champion and protector.

Sir Morial's tale was appropriately Arthurian in its tragedy. The seeds of his doom were laid in the very first adventure, when he was enchanted by the witch-queen Elidia. Thus began an "on again, off again" relationship from hell that eventually ended with Elidia manipulating Morial and Neilyn into a duel to the death. Morial had an enchanted blade that would kill the first person it cut; standing before his old friend, Morial removed his chainmail glove and cut his own hand, killing himself. Simultaneously, Elidia was giving birth to Morial's second child with her, and died in childbirth, even as Vivien delivered her third child with Neilyn.

Sound contrived? The births, and their results, had been determined with the roll of the dice. This is one of Pendragon's greatest strengths: it carries the old-school torch of randomness and unpleasant outcomes. Pendragon's combat is deadly, its Passion rules can force your character to do things that are distinctly not beneficial, or even drive your character to madness (another character Alex ran, Sir Peredur, was driven mad by passion and in a fit of anger actually beheaded the lady he was sworn to protect).

Jim over at LotFP wrote in a recent post about how the current iterations of D&D have betrayed the game's sometimes random and deadly roots. I couldn't agree more. Knowing that your character could easily die from a bad roll simply adds drama and tension to the game. A recent example: Neilyn, a knight still at the top of his abilities, was ambushed by raiders while riding pursuit after a recent battle. He took a great spear to the armpit and nearly died. Just like that.

Alex, who was playing a Jewish mystic at the time, was able to heal Neilyn and bring him back from death's door--yet even that came down to dice rolling. Had the dice not cooperated, Neilyn might well have died. The drama and tension during that whole scene were palpable.

Of course, Pendragon also carries the old school torch in its rather byzantine and non-intuitive rules, sub-systems and strange exceptions. (This gets back to my search for the "perfect" FRPG system; I'm looking for something that can deliver that old school brutality, but with the sophistication of design that comes with today's RPGs.)

We have recently embarked upon a new phase of the Pendragon campaign. Neilyn and Vivien have retired. Alex has decided, after many, many years, to take a break from gaming, so we are down to two players. The new characters are gelling and new adventures await. Next month will be two years since we started this campaign; I wouldn't be surprised if it takes another two years of regular play to get to the final Battle of Camlann. I can't wait.

Post-Script: When I was younger I would always draw a character sketch for any character I made. Nowadays, as I find myself GMing most of the time, I occasionally draw a character sketch for one or more of the PCs in my campaigns. This is my sketch of Duchess Vivien; she has begun to grow her hair out after "outing" herself and she wields her father's sword, an ancient Roman cavalry sword. It is probably my favorite character sketch of all time.

There's so much more I could write about: Neilyn's minotaur axe, Morial's love affair with a faerie queen, the campaign against the Roman empire, the feud between Neilyn and Vivien and the Orkney clan, but I will save that all for another time.

I hope this post can serve in some small way to inspire any GMs out there who may want to run an epic campaign to do so. It is a lot of work, and success is far from guaranteed, but if things click the campaign will take on a life of its own and live on in the memory of you and your group forever.
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