Going off-script in the Great Pendragon Campaign

I love King Arthur Pendragon. The Great Pendragon Campaign is central to the 5th edition of the game. The 5th edition rulebook presumes that your campaign will start in the reign of King Uther, and its character generation rules are geared accordingly. The rules necessary for later eras of play do not primarily appear in the KAP rulebook itself, but “unfold” with the successive eras of the Great Pendragon Campaign. 5th edition Pendragon is built from the ground up assuming you are going to play the Great Pendragon Campaign.

And you should. If you’ve the slightest interest in Arthurian mythology, you should play the Great Pendragon Campaign. If your group completes the Great Pendragon Campaign, it is a great gaming accomplishment, which will be respected by everyone in the greater roleplaying hobby who has ever even thought of playing Pendragon. If Greg Stafford, may he rest in peace, still walked among the living, he would commemorate your achievement personally on Nocturnal Media’s web forum, and you would be fully deserving of such recognition even by so great a luminary.

The Great Pendragon Campaign presents each year of the Arthurian saga, from 485 AD to 566 AD. By the end of the campaign, your player characters will be the grandchildren, perhaps even great grandchildren, of the player characters you started with in 485 AD. Each session of Pendragon should correspond to one game year – that’s 82 sessions for your campaign, assuming you don’t have any years which stretch to two sessions. Plus the Book of Uther includes an extra 5 years at the start – with a 480 AD start your campaign will run for 87 sessions. If you play approximately fortnightly as my group does, you will take more than three years to finish the Great Pendragon Campaign. Through that three years of play, you will experience the whole of medieval history, as every decade of two in the campaign advances the social and technological era by a century. King Uther’s period is analogous to the 10th Century, with dark ages grit, chainmail, and barbarian raiders, whereas the Grail Quest period is analogous to the 14th Century, with courtly love, partial plate, tournaments, and so on.

The basic format of the Great Pendragon Campaign book is to present each phase of the campaign as a chapter, with general notes about the era, and then to present the key events of each year. Each year is generally 1 to 3 pages covering everything from court gossip to political developments and often includes event-specific adventures. The style of play changes throughout the campaign. The Uther period can be quite “railroady” for example, as your party is assumed to follow Uther about in his bloody wars of unification, close enough to witness the events leading to the birth of Arthur. Following the death of King Uther (and likely most of your player knights) at the Infamous Feast after the Battle of St Albans in 495 AD, play transitions to the much more open Anarchy period, during which time the player knights will largely control the fate of their home county, Salisbury, as Britain suffers without a king.

My Pendragon campaign is presently in the last few years of the Anarchy period. The surviving senior player knights have assumed leadership of Salisbury through its regency council, ruling on behalf of the underage male heir of the late Count Roderick and his widow. While the Great Pendragon Campaign book does not proscribe what the player knights should do, year on year, it does assume that they will at the very least not willingly submit their county to the rule of the Saxon invaders. Saxons are like Pendragon’s orcs, kind of, only blonder. One group of Saxons, the West Saxons, is led by King Cerdic, who claims to be the son of the High King Vortigern the Tyrant. Vortigern was the traitor who opened Britain’s borders to migrants from the continent Vortigern betrayed his own people in favour of Saxon mercenaries who helped him cement his hold on power. He married Rowena, daughter of the Saxon chieftain Hengest, and Cerdic is the product of their union. Many of the player knights generated out of the 5th edition rulebooks will have family histories which involved their fathers fighting against Vortigern and his Saxon allies, and perhaps even getting murdered by the bastard in the Treachery of the Long Knives, one of the rare events in mythology which has been so overshadowed by the real life 20th Century historical event which appropriated its name that everyone is going to assume you are talking about Nazis and wonder why you made that weak strike-thru joke about Brexit a few sentences back. Anyway, the point is that one basic assumption made in the treatment of the Anarchy in the Great Pendragon Campaign book is that the player knights are not going to do homage to Saxons, especially not the Saxons led by the son of that rat bastard Vortigern who murdered all their families.

I can already hear experienced referees laughing right now. After all, if there is one thing player characters can do, it is mess up plans, even the plans of the esteemed Greg Stafford. In the absence of a legitimate king, my players decided that the Countess of Salisbury should not only do homage to King Cerdic of Wessex, but marry her only daughter to his son. As you might imagine, Salisbury now finds its destiny intertwined with Cerdic’s crown. Over the upcoming years of the campaign, the Great Pendragon Campaign book assumes that Salisbury will fight on the side of the (British) King of Escavalon or the (British) King of Cornwall, and that they will stand against the Saxons under the leadership of King Cerdic. In my campaign at least, that’s not going to happen, clearly.

So, what do I do? Well, the answer is both simple and obvious if you’ve read the Great Pendragon Campaign book – build the next few sessions around the very same political and military events, but just do them from the opposite point of view from that originally intended by the author. But what will the long-term implication be for the campaign? That’s harder to tell. When the Boy King Arthur draws the sword from the stone, will they accept him as their rightful king? Or when he is acknowledged by his mother and named as the only legitimate son of Uther, will they then bend the knee? Or will they cling stubbornly to their half-Saxon son of a tyrant, King Cerdic, because homage once paid is hard to “unpay”? Will Salisbury remain bound to the Saxon cause even until Badon Hill, when Arthur subdues the Saxons?

There are some who deride campaigns with “scripted” events as denying player agency on the story, or being as good as railroading the players, or just being flat-out boring. Greg Stafford and the Great Pendragon Campaign show us it does not have to be the case.

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